National

Rescuers race against time as death toll in western Japan floods rises to at least 176

Kyodo, Staff Report, AP

Rescuers were in a pitched battle against time Wednesday to save dozens of people still missing days after torrential rains first began to deluge parts of western Japan, sparking flooding and landslides that have left at least 176 people dead.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced the death toll Wednesday. As of Tuesday afternoon, the government had said more than 50 people were still unaccounted for, most of them in the hardest-hit Hiroshima area.

Search efforts continued in Hiroshima and Okayama prefectures, as well as their neighboring areas, despite the elapse of the crucial 72-hour period, after which the odds of finding survivors decreases significantly.

The record downpours triggered a number of mudslides as well as flooding homes across a wide swath of the region from Friday afternoon to early Saturday, pushing the death toll to the highest in a rain-related natural disaster in the nation since 1982.

Rescuers stepped up search efforts in Hiroshima Prefecture, where massive landslides have occurred leaving more than 50 dead and multiple people still unaccounted for.

A fresh evacuation order was issued Tuesday for residents in the town of Fuchu, after the Enoki River that runs through the town overflowed earlier in the day when driftwood blocked its flow.

About 1,000 rescuers continued to search in flooded areas of the city of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, for people trapped in their homes. More than 20 people died in the city after river dikes collapsed, inundating around 4,600 homes.

Scorching heat that followed the rains also began to take a toll on the health of evacuees, with many unable to take showers or make their way to hospitals for much-needed medicines.

At an elementary school in the Mabicho area of Kurashiki, where some 200 people have taken shelter, more than 10 large electric fans were seen running together in the hot weather. “My body is sticky because I haven’t taken a bath and I left my glasses behind and can’t see anything,” said a woman in her 70s, who was rescued by Self-Defense Forces personnel after being found trapped in her home in water up to her chest.

During a meeting of the government’s crisis response unit in Tokyo on Tuesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to swiftly provide emergency relief by dipping into reserve funds and bypassing requests from local governments.

“We will assess the needs of victims and push for quick reconstruction,” Abe vowed.

To address food and water shortages in disaster-hit areas, Abe said trucks ferrying supplies to convenience stores and other retailers will be treated as emergency vehicles.

Suga said at a news conference that the government is expected to direct roughly ¥2 billion in reserve funds to the relief effort, to includes the procurement of water, food, air conditioning and portable toilets.

Abe said at a separate meeting Tuesday that he will visit Okayama Prefecture on Wednesday to see the damage first-hand and discuss municipalities’s needs with them directly.

Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko, meanwhile, said his ministry will dispatch 13 tank trucks to the coastal city of Kure in order to address gasoline and light oil shortages.

Seko said the ministry will send portable air conditioners to evacuation centers in Kurashiki as well as Kumano, Hiroshima Prefecture, where many residents have been forced to take shelter following damage to their homes. Large air conditioning units will be installed later.

Although the government has yet to fully establish the extent of the damage, some 347 homes were totally or partially destroyed and 9,868 homes were flooded as of Tuesday morning, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

The figures are expected to rise substantially, since municipal authorities have yet to finish their own damage assessments.

Electricity supplies were cut off at about 51,000 homes in six prefectures, and some 269,672 homes were suffering water outages in 12 prefectures in the west of the country as of Monday evening, the government said.

The downpours have also hit businesses, though some companies have already resumed operations that had been suspended.

Daihatsu Motor Co., a unit of Toyota Motor Corp. that makes minivehicles, rebooted operations at all its plants Tuesday including those in disaster-hit Kyoto and Osaka prefectures, although it said it may still halt them again depending on its ability to procure parts.

Meanwhile, farm equipment manufacturer Kubota Corp. said it had restarted operations at its Hyogo plant, which had been flooded by the heavy rains.