• Kyodo, Reuters


Intermittent rain and the risk of a secondary disaster posed challenges for rescue workers racing against time following a large mudslide in a hot spring resort town southwest of Tokyo that killed at least four people, destroyed at least 130 houses and left an uncertain number missing.

Firefighters, police and Self-Defense Forces personnel continued to search mud-swamped houses in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, and remove debris after having rescued 23 people by Sunday. One person was reported injured and over 560 people took shelter in local hotels, according to the city.

On Monday, another three of those who had been missing were found by the rescue team, the city government said. One was confirmed dead later in the day, while the other two are reportedly not in a life-threatening condition.

On Tuesday, the municipal government said the number of people whose whereabouts remain unknown decreased to 24 from earlier reports of 64. Of them, the whereabouts of 41 people have been confirmed, while another person has been added to the list of missing, the city government said.

The city government has identified one of the four dead as 82-year-old Chiyose Suzuki, but the three other victims are yet to be identified.

By Monday, the number of rescuers at the site had risen to 1,500, officials said, and could increase.

“We want to rescue as many victims … buried in the rubble as soon as possible,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo, adding that police, firefighters and members of the SDF were doing all they could to aid the search.

The top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said the state will team up with experts and the Shizuoka Prefectural Government to look into whether the massive mudslide was exacerbated by about 54,000 cubic meters of soil which was accumulated at the mountain for housing land and other development projects.

According to the prefectural government, some 100,000 cubic meters of soil collapsed into a nearby river at around 10:30 a.m. Saturday and traveled a distance of about 2 kilometers.

Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu inspected the disaster-hit area and told reporters, “Due to the accumulation of prolonged rain, the soil (left by the company) and sediment were washed away and exacerbated the damage.”

While accumulated soil is generally looser than naturally formed mounds, Michiya Irasawa, a professor of erosion control at Iwate University, said that such soil would still usually stay in place if compacted with heavy machinery.

“I suspect a large volume of water flowed inside the mound and weakened the soil’s stability,” he said.

Norifumi Hotta, an associate professor of erosion control engineering at the University of Tokyo, said the collapse of the accumulated soil may have triggered the mudslide.

With the site originally at risk, he called for an investigation into whether leaving such a large amount of soil there was appropriate.

The local government decided to close 11 elementary and junior high schools and four kindergartens on Monday as warnings against heavy rain and mudslide remained in place.

Kato called on residents to remain vigilant, noting that the saturated earth has been weakened and even light rain could prove dangerous.

Though Atami city spokesperson Hiroki Onuma said that the rain had stopped in Atami for now, more is forecast, raising the possibility of further landslides.

“The situation is unpredictable,” he said.

On social media platform Twitter, people posted the names, ages, descriptions and photos of missing relatives.

Among those searching for their relatives was 71-year-old Koichi Tanaka, whose 70-year-old wife, Michiko went missing after Tanaka left his wife at home to check on her friend.

“I cannot believe that the city’s face changed drastically within an hour,” said Tanaka.

A local arm of the Japan National Council of Social Welfare began the enrollment of volunteers on Monday, but only taking on workers from within the prefecture as a measure against the coronavirus. The organization will set up a volunteer center once fears of a secondary disaster recede.

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