Rescuers are racing against time to save people stranded by heavy floods and landslides that have devastated southwestern Japan and left dozens dead.
Japan’s Meteorological Agency (JMA) on Tuesday issued its second-highest emergency warning for heavy rain and landslides over vast swaths of the Kyushu region, which has been pounded by downpours since late on Friday.
At least 50 deaths have so far been confirmed but officials expect the toll to rise, with more than a dozen people reported missing.
“We are racing against time,” Yutaro Hamasaki, an official in the hardest-hit region of Kumamoto, told AFP news agency.
“We have not set any deadline or time to end the operation, but we really need to speed up our search as time is running out. We won’t give up to the end.”
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide said on Tuesday that the government may declare the torrential rain an “extraordinary disaster” to enable victims to receive special support, according to Japanese public media broadcaster NHK.
He also told reporters heavy rain was forecast through Wednesday in wide parts of eastern and western Japan, while the JMA warned “risks are rising” nationwide.
Suga hints at 'extraordinary disaster' declaration https://t.co/JqisOu7OSq
— NHK WORLD News (@NHKWORLD_News) July 7, 2020
In Kyushu, tens of thousands of army troops, police and other rescue workers mobilised from around the country worked their way through mud and debris in the hardest-hit riverside towns along the Kuma River.
So far, at least 22 hospitals in Kumamoto, Kagoshima and Fukuoka prefectures were flooded or had no electricity or water, NHK reported.
At an elementary school in Omuta city, dozens of children and their teachers spent the night sheltering on the upper floor of the building after floodwaters inundated the ground level.
“Shoe cupboards on the group floor were swept away and shoes were floating around,” an 11-year-old girl told a local newspaper after rescuers arrived.
“Some children were sobbing because they were worried about not being able to get home and were afraid of the heavy rain.”
Kentaro Oishi, who owns a rafting business in the hot springs resort of Hitoyoshi City, said emergency services drafted him in to rescue stranded locals.
“I have 20 years of rafting experience, but I never dreamed” of rowing the boat through the city, he told AFP.
Despite Japan’s confirmed coronavirus figures being fairly low – almost 20,000 cases and fewer than 1,000 deaths – the outbreak has further complicated the evacuation efforts.
Hundreds of thousands of people are under non-compulsory orders to take refuge but the need to maintain physical distancing has reduced capacity at shelters.
In Yatsushiro city, authorities converted the local sports gymnasium into a shelter, with families separated by cardboard walls to prevent the spread of the virus.
According to local media, some people were preferring to sleep in their cars rather than risk possible infection at a shelter.
The flooding has also compounded problems for businesses already hit hard by the pandemic.