Japan tackles clean-up as rains toll nears 200

Japan tackles clean-up as rains toll nears 200
PHOTO: AFP

Japanese rescue workers searched the ruins of homes Thursday looking for dozens of people still missing after deadly rains that killed nearly 200 people.

Operations were under way to dig out and clear up after the devastating floods and landslides that engulfed entire neighbourhoods.

But with around 60 people still feared missing, local authorities said they would continue searching house by house looking for survivors, or victims.

"The critical 72 hours have passed," acknowledged Mutsunari Imawaka, an official with Okayama prefecture, one of the worst-hit regions.

"But we will continue our search believing there are still survivors," he told AFP.

He said at least 18 people were missing in Okayama alone, and that several thousand people were checking houses across the region.

Television footage showed dozens of rescuers, including troops, removing massive rocks with mechanical diggers from houses buried in landslides.

Rescuers were also manually shovelling dirt to search for missing people.

The rains are the deadliest weather-related disaster in over three decades in Japan, and the size of the death toll has raised questions about whether authorities were sufficiently prepared.

Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday said there would be a review of disaster management policies.

"In recent years we have seen damage from heavy rains that is much worse than in previous years," he said.

"We have to review what the government can do to reduce the risks."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who cancelled a foreign trip as the death toll rose this week, brushed aside criticism of the response during a trip to Okayama on Wednesday.

"We have done our best since the disaster happened," local media quoted him as saying.

On Thursday, he pledged to ramp up help for affected areas and said the government had secured around 71,000 temporary homes for evacuees.

"Looking ahead, as we are expecting a massive amount of disaster-generated waste, I plan to send a team to each prefecture to support" clean-up efforts, Abe said, according to footage of a morning meeting broadcast on local television.

The government has already said it will set aside around $20 million for the relief effort and Abe said there would be financial support for local governments to help with the reconstruction effort.

At least 64 killed in Japan after 'unprecedented' rain

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    The death toll from unprecedented rains in Japan rose to at least 64 on Sunday after rivers burst their banks and forced several million people from their homes, media reports said, with more rain set to hit some areas for at least another day.

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    Torrential rains pounded some parts of western Japan with three times the usual precipitation for a normal July and set off landslides and sent rivers surging over their banks, trapping many people in their houses or on rooftops.

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    "We've never experienced this kind of rain before," an official at the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) told a news conference. "This is a situation of extreme danger."

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    At least 64 people were killed and 44 missing, national broadcaster NHK said after the death toll had been put at 49 overnight.

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    Japan's government set up an emergency management centre at the prime minister's office and some 54,000 rescuers from the military, police and fire departments were dispatched across a wide swath of southwestern and western Japan.

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    "There are still many people missing and others in need of help, we are working against time," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.

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    Evacuation orders remained in place for some 2 million people and another 2.3 million were advised to evacuate, although rain had stopped and floodwaters receded in some areas.

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    Landslide warnings were issued in more than a quarter of the nation's prefectures.

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    Roads were closed and train services suspended in parts of western Japan. Shinkansen bullet train services, resumed on a limited schedule after they were suspended on Friday.

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Water, power shortages

Abe, who is expected to visit another disaster-affected area on Friday, said the government would "do everything we can so that people will not have to continue living in uncomfortable situations in shelters".

Around 10,000 people whose homes were buried by landslides or submerged in flood waters are still in shelters.

Even some of those whose homes were not destroyed were struggling with water and electricity shortages.

Military vehicles were being used to bring drinking water to areas without supplies, and a steady stream of volunteers were signing up to help the clean-up operation or offer donations.

The scale of the disaster means the process of returning to normal life will be slow, officials said.

"We don't know how long it will take for the recovery," said Okayama official Imawaka.

"The roads and water systems are damaged, so it's hard to predict at this moment."

And authorities warned against the ongoing risk of landslides, with rain forecast in some areas on Thursday, as well as heatstroke in other places where temperatures approached 35 degrees celsius.

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