Fukuoka – As rescuers raced against the clock to find survivors, more torrential rain struck the Kyushu region on Tuesday, with the death toll climbing to at least 53 and the government issuing its highest alert as the Chikugo River in Oita Prefecture overflowed.
In Kumamoto Prefecture, at least 52 people have died and 11 people were still missing, authorities said, while a woman in Fukuoka Prefecture was also confirmed dead.
The 87-year-old woman in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, was found at her submerged home Monday night and was confirmed dead Tuesday at a hospital.
In Omuta, about 200 people were left stranded at two evacuation centers after floodwaters surged in the area. The prefectural government has asked the central government to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces for rescue efforts.
The Chikugo River, the largest river in the Kyushu region, overflowed in Hita, Oita Prefecture, prompting a local meteorological observatory and the land ministry to issue the highest-level alert to residents in the morning.
The death toll from the heavy rains that started in the early hours of Saturday is expected to climb. Search efforts for the missing continued although the initial 72-hour period considered critical for finding people alive has passed at many of the sites hit by landslides and floods.
“We are racing against time,” Yutaro Hamasaki, a Kumamoto official said early Tuesday morning.
“We have not set any deadline or time to end the operation, but we really need to speed up our search as time is running out. We won’t give up to the end,” Hamasaki vowed.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was doubling the deployment of rescue personnel, including police and firefighters as well as coast guard personnel and the SDF, to 80,000.
People living in mountainous areas had been stranded with phone, electricity and water services cut. Local authorities were transporting them to evacuation centers.
Kentaro Oishi, who owns a rafting business in the hot springs resort of Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto Prefecture, said the emergency services called him for help and he had swapped tourists for stranded locals.
“I have 20 years of rafting experience, but I never dreamed” of rowing the boat through the city, the veteran paddler said.
Further complicating the evacuation efforts was the fear of spreading the coronavirus.
Compared to many other nations, Japan has been relatively lightly affected by the pandemic, with just under 20,000 cases and fewer than 1,000 deaths.
But the need to maintain social distancing has reduced capacity at evacuation shelters with hundreds of thousands of people under noncompulsory orders to take refuge.
In Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture, authorities converted the local sports gymnasium into a shelter, with families separated off by cardboard walls to prevent the spread of the virus.
Some people were preferring to sleep in their cars rather than risk possible infection at a shelter.
For some local business owners already battered by the coronavirus crisis, the natural disaster has compounded their problems.
Yuji Hashimoto, who runs a tourism bureau in the hot-spring resort in Yatsushiro, said that the “beautiful tourism spot dramatically changed overnight.”
“The damage was beyond our imagination. It’s literally a bolt from the blue. … The disaster is a double-whammy as our hot spring resort was struggling to weather the impact of coronavirus. We don’t know what will happen to us next,” he said.
The rain front is expected to linger for several more days, moving toward east Japan.
“Vigilance is required across the nation … the risk level is rising,” an official of the Meteorological Agency warned.
Japan is in the middle of its annual rainy season, which frequently unleashes deadly floods and landslides.
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