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At least two people were killed and about 20 remained missing Sunday after a violent mudslide hit a hot-spring resort city southwest of Tokyo on Saturday following a period of torrential rain that has underscored the trend of increasingly volatile weather due to climate change.

Around 700 police and Self-Defense Forces personnel, as well as firefighters, were involved in the search Sunday in the Izusan district of Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, while work to clear away mud and debris using heavy machinery began early in the morning amid intermittent rain and the continuing risk of a secondary disaster.

The coast guard also continued looking for missing persons at a nearby port, where two women showing no vital signs were discovered and later confirmed dead Saturday.

According to Shizuoka Prefecture, the mudslide injured at least three people and left about 20 people unaccounted for as of Sunday morning. At least 130 buildings were swept away, forcing 258 residents in Atami to evacuate. Eleven individuals affected by the mudslide had been safely rescued by Sunday afternoon, the Atami Municipal Government said.

Water outages occurred in areas around the mudslide site, according to the municipal government.

Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu said there are views that the mudslide might have occurred due to land development conducted around the site, possibly leading to a decline in the mountain’s water-holding capacity. Kawakatsu added that the prefecture will investigate the cause of the mudslide.

Mud and debris at the scene of a landslide following days of heavy rain in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Saturday | AFP-JIJI
Mud and debris at the scene of a landslide following days of heavy rain in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Saturday | AFP-JIJI

But the tragedy is also a sobering reminder of how extreme rain events like this are becoming a new normal both at home and abroad as global temperatures continue to rise. Climate scientists have said the warming atmosphere is prone to retaining more moisture, leading to heavier rain and more violent storms.

Sunday also coincided with the first anniversary of deadly downpours that struck Kumamoto Prefecture in the Kyushu region. Massive floods killed 86 people in total, including 67 in the prefecture.

Stories of extreme rains, floods, typhoons and landslides are no longer a rare occurrence in Japan: In 2019, floods and mudslides caused by torrential rain killed two in Kagoshima Prefecture, while in 2018, one of the most catastrophic floods in recent Japanese history inundated large swaths of western Japan in the wake of record rainfall, killing more than 200.

The mudslide in Atami also shed light on the difficulties municipalities are experiencing as they navigate a revised disaster warning system that took effect in May.

The new five-tier warning system — which is meant to be issued in the event of disasters such as floods and mudslides — did away with a confusing alert level that was dually described as an evacuation “recommendation” and an evacuation “instruction,” and re-labeled it as the latter. The government hopes the new description will more effectively convey a sense of urgency and prod residents to evacuate quickly.

Rescuers work at the scene of a landslide following days of heavy rain in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI
Rescuers work at the scene of a landslide following days of heavy rain in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI

But since the expression “evacuation instruction” carries with it a more dire connotation and leaves less room for errors of judgment, some point out that municipalities are now under heavier pressure than before to be certain of the gravity of a disaster before issuing the alert.

In the case of Atami, the city issued what is known as an “evacuation of the elderly” — the third-highest warning level — on Friday, a day before the deadly mudslide occurred.

The city kept the alert unchanged through Saturday morning and failed to issue an “evacuation instruction,” the second-highest level, before the mudslide.

When the city finally revised the warning level from “evacuation of the elderly” to the most serious instruction for people to take “emergency safety measures” — which the government says denotes a “life-threatening situation in which you can no longer safely evacuate” — the mudslide had already tore through the Izusan district.

A Coast Guard vessel searches the bay following a deadly landslide in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI
A Coast Guard vessel searches the bay following a deadly landslide in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Sunday.
| AFP-JIJI

At a news conference on Saturday, Atami Mayor Sakae Saito, when asked why the city failed to issue an evacuation alert before the disaster, explained that rainfall had been forecast to peak and weaken after Friday.

“But the reality is that a disaster did occur, so we can’t say we were entirely (blameless) for what happened,” Saito said.

At a meeting of relevant Cabinet ministers in Tokyo on Sunday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga instructed participants to make all-out efforts to search for people missing in the disaster and support those affected.

The prime minister asked the general public to proactively take steps to protect their lives while paying close attention to weather and evacuation information, warning that heavy rain may continue in many areas.

Information from Kyodo added

An evacuation center in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI
An evacuation center in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI

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