Over 250 schools in Japan were damaged in rain disaster, as severed water supplies exacerbate fire risks

Kyodo

At least 270 elementary and junior high schools were damaged by floods and mudslides earlier this month caused by torrential rain, the education ministry said Tuesday.

The western prefectures of Okayama, Hiroshima and Ehime — where most of the more than 200 deaths occurred in the disasters — reported that around 150 schools had closed, with many unable to resume classes, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Schools were also affected in Hokkaido and Okinawa.

The death toll from the rain disaster in western Japan stands at 222, according to the National Police Agency, while the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said 4,700 people were still evacuated as of Monday evening.

The torrential rain, as well as a typhoon that preceded it, have pummeled agricultural and fisheries industries nationwide, with the government estimating the damage at about ¥53 billion ($472 million) and warning that figure could rise.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is planning to visit Hiroshima Prefecture on Saturday to inspect the damage, said a member of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Some schools have, in effect, started summer break. The education ministry said teachers and parents need be aware of any psychological effects minors may have experienced, as well as keeping an eye out for delays to progress in the school curriculum due to the disaster.

“I am shocked that I cannot go to school,” said a 13-year-old female junior high student in Kurashiki, Okayama, adding that her uniform and study materials were soaked in floodwater.

A junior high school in Takahashi, also in Okayama, managed to resume classes Tuesday after being closed for a week. “I am worried about whether I can catch up with my studies,” said one student. An elementary school on the remote island of Nuwa, off Matsuyama, Ehime, lost two of six children to mudslides caused by the heavy rain.

Prior to resuming class, a school counselor met with each of the remaining four pupils to see if they are mentally ready to attend classes. The school said it will continue to check their condition through such monitoring.

“It was a sudden goodbye, and I still cannot believe it happened,” said Toshi Yamaguchi, the school’s principal, referring to the deceased students. “I wanted to talk more with them.” In areas where water supplies remain cut off, authorities are worried about potential disasters caused by fire.

Municipal governments are warning that flooded vehicles and solar power generation equipment at collapsed homes could start fires, while local firefighters say their operations could be hindered if they cannot use fire hydrants.

Vehicles exposed to water could cause fires when electric systems malfunction, said an official at the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, urging owners to consult maintenance service providers before starting engines.

Five fire incidents caused by solar panels have already been reported in Mabicho, Kurashiki, where more than 4,000 housing buildings were flooded, according to the city.

Firefighters in Uwajima, Ehime, where some areas are still without water supplies, are now considering drawing water from rivers or the sea

The latest disaster has also highlighted the need to reassess flood risks near irrigation ponds, with only four of the 21 reservoirs that overflowed due to the heavy rain having been designated as priority areas for disaster mitigation steps, according to government officials.

A 3-year-old girl died in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, because her house was washed away after an irrigation pond failed. The pond was not designated as a priority area, according to the city government.

Ponds with the designation can receive government subsidies more smoothly than other areas to take steps to minimize the risk of serious damage from downpours and other disasters.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries now plans to designate all irrigation ponds as priority areas, provided houses are located downstream of the ponds, according to ministry officials.

There are around 200,000 artificial ponds nationwide that have been created to secure water for agricultural use in areas that often face water shortages. But only about 11,000 of them have received the designation and some local governments have been slow in creating hazard maps showing areas with the potential for flooding.

Geographer Kazuko Uchida said some local governments are too busy to devise hazard maps because they have so many ponds to deal with.

“Nearby residents need to be aware of the danger,” said Uchida, a professor emeritus at Okayama University.