• STAFF REPORT, AFP-JIJI, KYODO, JIJI, REUTERS

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At least 15 people in Kyushu were feared dead, nine were missing and one was seriously injured Saturday as unprecedented rain overnight triggered floods and landslides and the Self-Defense Forces were called in to help.

The rain was so fierce that some 203,200 residents in 92,200 households in Kumamoto and Kagoshima prefectures were ordered to evacuate.

In the village of Kuma in Kumamoto, 14 people were found “in cardiopulmonary arrest” in a flooded care home named Senjuen, local officials said. Another person was found in the same condition after being pulled from a landslide in Tsunagi, also in Kumamoto. In Japan, accident victims are often described as being in cardiopulmonary arrest pending official notification of death.

“At one point in the morning, 13 people were unaccounted for, but the figures are changing as we are still struggling to sort out the situation,” local disaster management official Naosaka Miyahara said.

“The situation requires people to make best efforts to protect their lives,” Yoshihisa Nakamoto, director of the Meteorological Agency’s Forecast Division, said at a news conference in Tokyo.

In the town of Ashikita in Kumamoto, people were reported missing after levees along the Kuma River failed in several locations.

TV broadcasts showed houses swept away by mudslides in Ashikita and vast residential areas submerged under muddy water in the city of Hitoyoshi.

Authorities received over 100 rescue calls but could not respond to all of them immediately, NHK said.

The Meteorological Agency issued a Level 5 alert for floods and landslides, its highest warning, for rain “never seen” before — the first time it has ever issued such an alert for the two prefectures.

The warnings cover Yatsushiro, Amakusa and Hitoyoshi in Kumamoto and parts of Kagoshima, including Akune and Isa.

The warnings were downgraded to Level 3 shortly before noon, but a land ministry official warned that the Kuma River would be at risk of flooding for at least six hours.

The Cabinet Office announced Saturday morning that the Disaster Relief Act was invoked in 20 municipalities in the prefectures, allowing them to request aid from the SDF and the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government will work closely with the prefectural governments to assess the damage and aid recovery “while putting lives as their highest priority.”

Abe also pressed residents to take whatever actions necessary to protect their lives proactively and instructed a 10,000-strong SDF search team to prepare for deployment to the region.

“There’s a possibility that heavy rain will continuously fall on the Kyushu region through (Sunday), so we must maintain our vigilance at the highest level,” Abe said. “Also, for evacuation sites established in various locations, we ask that necessary materials be distributed proactively while taking the novel coronavirus infectious prevention measures into consideration.”

Kagoshima Gov. Satoshi Mitazono said he had instructed municipalities to enforce social distancing at evacuation sites and asked evacuees to wear masks.

Amakusa logged a record 98 millimeters (about 4 inches) of precipitation per hour, according to the agency.

The Kuma River flooded at 5:55 a.m. in Kuma. The floodwaters then spread to parts of Yatsushiro and the town of Ashikita. The Kumamoto Prefectural Government then issued a request for disaster relief to the Ground Self-Defense Force.

Bullet train services were suspended but gradually resumed at 9:30 a.m., Kyushu Railway Co. said.

The weather front responsible for the downpours, which also hit neighboring Miyazaki Prefecture, is expected to straddle parts of west and east Japan through Sunday, the agency said. It warned of heavy rain, particularly in the west.

Haruka Yamada, 32, of Ashikita, said she was awakened by the sound of heavy rain in the middle of the night. By early Saturday morning, water from the Kuma River had begun flooding areas near her house, she added.

“I heard the sound of something like big trees smashing against houses as they drifted,” she said. Her house is built on a raised ground and managed to escape the floods, she added.

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