Rescuers struggle to locate dozens in landslide-hit Japan town

by AFP

Authorities in a landslide-hit Japanese holiday town were trying to locate 80 residents on Monday as rescue teams trawled through the muddy debris looking for survivors.

Soldiers and emergency workers used hand-held poles and mechanical diggers in the desperate search, two days after a torrent of earth slammed down a mountainside and through part of the hot-spring resort of Atami in central Japan.

Three people have been confirmed dead, although authorities are struggling to pinpoint the whereabouts of dozens of residents as they scour the wreckage of 130 homes and other buildings that were destroyed.

Pylons were toppled, vehicles buried and buildings tipped from their foundations in the disaster, with aerial footage from the mountaintop showing a stark brown wedge gouged out of the green hillside.

“The number of those who are unaccounted for has now come to 80, down from 113. We are working hard to specify the figures as quickly as possible,” Hiroki Onuma, a town disaster management spokesman, told AFP.

Authorities had initially said just 20 people were missing, but Atami mayor Sakae Saito said Sunday evening that was only an estimate based on an early assessment.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Monday that the focus was still on finding survivors, with hundreds of rescue workers “doing their best to rescue as many people as possible, as soon as possible”.

The Saturday morning landslide descended in several violent waves during Japan’s annual rainy season, following days of intense downpours in and around Atami.

Rescuers on Monday took advantage of a break in the rain to continue their search, wading through streams of murky water and moving blocks of timber and other debris out of the way.

– Warning of more landslides –
Non-compulsory evacuation orders have been issued to more than 35,700 people across Japan, mostly in the Shizuoka region including Atami, which is around 90 kilometres (55 miles) southwest of Tokyo.

The weather agency forecast heavy rain in the wider region, warning that more landslides could take place.

Atami reportedly recorded more rainfall in 48 hours than it usually does for the whole of July, and survivors told local media they had never experienced such strong rain in their lives.

Scientists say climate change is intensifying Japan’s rainy season because a warmer atmosphere holds more water.

More than 200 people died as devastating floods inundated western Japan in 2018, and last year dozens more were killed as the coronavirus pandemic complicated relief efforts.

Survivors at a nearby evacuation centre told AFP on Sunday of their panic when the landslide began.

“When I opened the door, everyone was rushing into the street and a policeman came up to me and said: ‘What are you doing here, you have to hurry, everyone is evacuating!'” local resident Kazuyo Yamada said.

“So I went out in the rain in a hurry, without changing, with just a bag.”