Takayama, Gifu Pref. – Emergency services and troops were scrambling on Thursday to reach thousands of homes cut off by devastating flooding and landslides that have killed dozens and caused widespread damage.
The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said rising floodwater or roads damaged by landslides had blocked access to more than 3,000 households, mostly in the hardest-hit Kumamoto Prefecture where fresh downpours were forecast.
Authorities said the rain has already left 61 people dead in the Kyushu region, with two feared dead, and at least 16 people missing.
So far, 59 rivers, including Kuma River in Kumamoto Prefecture, overflowed, while at least 179 mudslides have occurred in 23 prefectures.
In the cut-off village of Kuma, Kumamoto Prefecture, parts of the road collapsed into the river and scenes of devastation in flood-affected houses were everywhere.
In one home, an elderly man was struggling to clear up the debris and furniture littering the mud-caked floor, his traditional straw tatami mats in one room ruined.
The rain front started in the Kyushu region in the early hours of Saturday and has since cut a swath of destruction across Japan, dumping record amounts of rain and causing swollen rivers to break their banks.
The Meteorological Agency said “heavy rain will likely continue at least until Sunday in a wide area” of the country, calling for “extreme vigilance” regarding landslides and flooding in low-lying areas.
The agency issued its second-highest evacuation order to more than 450,000 people. However, such orders are not compulsory and most residents are choosing not to go to shelters, possibly due to coronavirus fears.
After five days of being isolated as a result of floodwater and landslides, troops finally managed to rescue some 40 residents in the village of Ashikita in Kumamoto Prefecture.
Kinuyo Nakamura, 68, burst into tears as she finally made it to an evacuation center.
“Gosh, it was scary. My house, it’s such a mess, I cannot live there anymore,” she said as she came across someone she knew at the shelter.
“We have experienced flooding disasters in the past many times, but this one doesn’t compare. Rather than being afraid, I was just focused on escaping,” she told public broadcaster NHK.
Nakamura choked up as she explained that one of her neighbors had fallen victim to the floods.
“A truly, truly, fantastic person,” she said, covering her face to hide the tears. “That was the hardest thing.”
In many areas, landslides reduced houses to rubble and floodwater rushed into homes in low-lying areas, destroying the contents and rendering them uninhabitable.
Japan has deployed at least 80,000 rescue workers to save lives with the aid of another 10,000 troops.
The rains also lashed central Japan, with Ryoichi Miyamae, a local official in Gifu Prefecture, saying that nearly 4,000 people were cut off, mainly trapped in the cities of Gero and the tourist magnet of Takayama by the overflowing Hida River.
Complicating the rescue efforts has been the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed nearly 1,000 lives in Japan from more than 20,000 cases.
The need to maintain social distancing has reduced capacity at shelters and many have preferred to take refuge in their vehicles for fear of becoming infected.
One emergency worker said the coronavirus might be dissuading people from volunteering to help with the rescue efforts.
“A special characteristic of this disaster I felt was not people hesitating to evacuate, but people hesitating to offer help,” one doctor said, according to NHK. “In past disasters, by the fourth day we would normally see relief efforts like people preparing meals. This time, I am yet to see anything like that.”
Regional authorities have asked potential volunteers from outside Kumamoto not to travel to the region, for fear of spreading the virus.
Japan is in the middle of its annual rainy season and often sees damaging floods and landslides during this period, which lasts several weeks.
However, experts say climate change is intensifying the phenomenon because a warmer atmosphere holds more water to be dumped in the form of rain.