National

Army of volunteers heads west to clean out flood-hit homes

Kyodo

Thousands of volunteers began streaming into western Japan on Saturday to spend the three-day weekend helping flood-hit residents clean up their mud-caked homes and neighborhoods.

The governments of hard-hit Ehime, Hiroshima and Okayama prefectures said they expect some 18,000 volunteers to arrive from across the country during the three-day weekend through Monday, and have set up about 40 volunteer centers to receive them, according to the Japan National Council of Social Welfare.

The torrential rain that began around July 6 caused extensive flooding and landslides. The death toll has since surpassed 200 and about 40 people remain missing.

Nationwide, more than 25,600 houses were flooded in 31 of the nation’s 47 prefectures, with over 160 homes destroyed and about 700 structurally damaged, the internal affairs ministry said.

As of Friday afternoon, 5,800 people were still unable to return to their homes, it added.

Many municipalities and prefectures are still trying to restore transportation infrastructure but struggling to secure food and accommodations for volunteers.

In Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, one of the most heavily damaged cities, only residents were initially accepted as volunteers, though their activities had to be suspended at one point due to heavy congestion caused by transport disruptions. It has since set up a large parking area in a coastal area and started accepting nonresidential volunteers on Saturday.

The Hiroshima Prefectural Government, meanwhile, has secured thousands of shovels and carts for volunteers to use to help residents remove tons of mud and debris.

“Local officials are too busy with relief operations, such as managing evacuation shelters, to join the recovery efforts. We want to get as much help as possible,” said one prefectural official.

A shortage of manpower is also slowing progress.

“It takes at least four adults to lift a wet tatami mat. We are facing endless work,” said Shinichiro Okabe, a 66-year-old Kurashiki resident taking part in the relief work.

Madoka Maekawa of neighboring Kagawa Prefecture volunteered with her husband to help residents in Uwajima, Ehime Prefecture — her hometown — after seeing the devastation on TV.

“It hurts me to see the scene which no longer looks like what I know it to be,” said Maekawa, 28. “The homes of my friends here also suffered damage, so I want to give whatever help I can.”

Yutaka Akutsu, 44, who works near Tokyo, said he came to Kurashiki with six colleagues. He said he was returning the favor after his family’s home in Fukushima was damaged by tsunami after the mega-quake of March 2011.

“Volunteers helped my family out, so I wanted to give back in some way,” he said.

Volunteers will also have to cope with the stifling heat. Temperatures had already topped 30 Saturday morning at more than half of the 927 weather observatories across Japan.

In Kurashiki alone, a dozen people have been taken to hospital for heat exhaustion.