KUMA, Japan: Japanese emergency services and troops scrambled on Thursday to reach thousands of homes cut off by catastrophic flooding and landslides that have killed dozens and caused widespread damage.
Japan’s 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 southwestern region of Kumamoto where fresh downpours were forecast.
An AFP reporter in the cut-off village of Kuma saw parts of the road collapsed into the river and scenes of devastation in flood-affected houses.
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 southwest in the early hours of Saturday and has since cut a swathe of destruction across Japan, dumping record amounts of rain and causing swollen rivers to break their banks.
Japan’s Meteorological Agency (JMA) said “heavy rain will likely continue at least until July 12 in a wide area” of the country, calling for “extreme vigilance” on landslide risks and flooding in low-lying areas.
The JMA 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.
The death toll has climbed gradually as more victims are discovered in isolated areas.
Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters that 58 people had been confirmed dead, with a further four feared to have lost their lives.
Suga said authorities were investigating whether four other deaths were linked to the floods, adding that 17 people were missing and a dozen injured.
After five days blocked by floodwater and landslides, troops finally managed to rescue some 40 residents in the village of Ashikita in Kumamoto region.
Kinuyo Nakamura, 68, burst into tears of relief as she finally made it to an evacuation centre.
“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 neighbours 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 local official Ryoichi Miyamae telling AFP 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, the coronavirus pandemic 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 that lasts several weeks.
However, experts say climate change is intensifying the phenomenon because a warmer atmosphere holds more water to dump in the form of rain.