KUMAMOTO – Around 35 people were confirmed or presumed dead on Sunday after heavy rains swamped the Kyushu region, leading to widespread flooding and mudslides.
Deep floodwaters and the risk of more mudslides hampered search and rescue operations on Sunday, including at elderly care facilities where more than a dozen were killed and many are still stranded.
As of Sunday evening, 18 people have been confirmed dead, and at least 17 others may have also lost their lives in flood-ravaged Kumamoto Prefecture, the prefectural government said.
Rescuers struggled to reach hard-hit areas along the Kuma River, which broke its banks at several locations after torrential rain struck the area early Saturday, causing massive flooding.
At least 14 people were missing, and some residents in the prefecture’s central and southern parts, including in the cities of Yatsushiro and Hitoyoshi, became isolated after floods and mudslides cut off roads and swept away buildings.
The Meteorological Agency urged local residents to remain alert as torrential rain is forecast in parts of western Japan through Tuesday.
Of the 18 confirmed fatalities, nine were in Hitoyoshi, eight the town of Ashikita and one in Tsunagi.
Sixteen more people are feared dead in the village of Kuma, including 14 from a nursing home near the river, which runs through the central part of the village. About 50 people were rescued from Senjuen, the flood-hit nursing home, the local government said.
At the facility, about 60 people were trapped when floodwaters and mud gushed in, officials said.
One person was also found “in cardiopulmonary arrest” in Hitoyoshi. In Japan, accident victims are often described as being in cardiopulmonary arrest pending official notification of death.
A large “SOS” sign was created on the grounds of what used to be an elementary school in Yatsushiro, where about 10 people waved white towels at rescue and media helicopters.
Ground Self-Defense Force personnel have been dispatched to the region as part of relief efforts. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said around 10,000 SDF personnel will be mobilized.
More than 2,000 households in about 120 communities in eight municipalities, including Kuma, Hitoyoshi and Ashikita, were left stranded due to the torrential rains as of Sunday morning, according to Kumamoto Prefecture.
Narumi Kawano, a 78-year-old resident of Kuma, said she and her disabled husband, 75, barely survived after floodwaters rose up to their necks on the second floor of their home. Summoning her courage, she followed her husband and dived about 2 meters into the water to escape through a window.
Helicopters and boats plucked people from their homes as part of the rescue efforts.
Large areas along the Kuma River were swallowed by floodwaters with many houses, buildings and vehicles submerged almost up to their roofs. Mudslides smashed into houses, sending people scrambling to their rooftops, where they waved at rescuers.
In Hitoyoshi, the deluge poured into houses near the main train station.
“The water rose to the second floor so fast and I just couldn’t stop shivering,” a 55-year-old woman who was visiting her relatives told the Asahi Shimbun daily.
The woman and her relatives ran upstairs, swam out of the window and eventually took refuge on the roof to wait for their rescue.
As floods eased in the region on Sunday, vending machines and cars lay scattered on mud-coated streets. Some people were cleaning their homes, taking out damaged furniture and rinsing off the mud.
The Meteorological Agency had issued an evacuation order for a total of 203,200 residents in Kumamoto and neighbouring Kagoshima Prefecture, where more than 100 shelters were set up. But the evacuation was not mandatory and many people opted to stay home because of concerns over catching the coronavirus, even though officials say shelters are adequately equipped with partitions and other safety measures.
Flooding also cut off power and communication lines, further delaying the search and rescue. Some 4,650 homes in Kumamoto and Kagoshima were without power on Sunday afternoon, according to Kyushu Electric Power Co.
Rainfall that had exceeded 100 millimetres (4 inches) per hour subsided Sunday, but the Meteorological Agency kept mudslide warnings in place across Kumamoto.
“We will do our utmost to prevent the spread of the infection and make lives of those who had to flee their home as comfortable as possible,” Disaster Management Minister Ryota Takeda told reporters after visiting a gymnasium in the city of Hitoyoshi, where 600 residents are sheltering.
A rain front began bringing downpours to the region between late Friday and early Saturday. The heavy rainfall on Friday and Saturday in Kumamoto totalled 500 millimetres in Minamata and more than 400 millimetres in Kuma, Yunomae and Amakusa, according to the Meteorological Agency.