‘This is hell’: 1,500 rescuers search mud for Japan missing

About 80 people are still unaccounted for after torrential rain at the weekend sent mud and rocks onto the streets of Atami.

Firefighters conduct search and rescue operations at a mudslide site in Atami. Some 1,500 people are combing the mud for survivors [Shizuoka City Fire Department - Fire and Disaster Management Agency via Reuters]

Some 1,500 rescuers combed through crumbled houses and buried roads in Japan on Monday in an enormous effort to find some 80 people believed still missing two days after a series of landslides tore through the seaside city of Atami, not far from Tokyo.

The official death toll from the landslides that hit early on Saturday is four, according to the city’s spokesperson Hiroki Onuma, while the number of missing had come down from 113 earlier reported.

Torrential rain during the weekend touched off a succession of landslides, sending torrents of mud and rock through the  streets of the city which is situated 90km (60 miles) southwest of Tokyo.

“My mother is still missing,” one man told NHK public television. “I never imagined something like this could happen here.”

One 75-year-old evacuee said the house across from his had been swept away and the couple that lived there was unaccounted for.

“This is hell,” he said.

By Monday, the number of rescuers at the site had risen to 1,500, officials said, and could increase.

“We want to rescue as many victims … buried in the rubble as soon as possible,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters, adding that police, firefighters and members of the military were doing all they could to aid the search.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency said the number of missing stood at 80 by about noon. Two people were found alive and unharmed on Monday, NHK reported.

“We’re in touch with various groups and pushing forward with the searches,” Onuma said.

An aerial view shows the site where the landslide is believed to have started in Atami [Kyodo via Reuters]

The number of people unaccounted for rose sharply on Monday as officials began working from residential registers rather than phone calls from people unable to reach family and friends, he said.

Approximately 130 buildings were affected on Saturday morning when landslides ripped through Atami, a hot springs resort set on a steep slope that leads down to a bay.

The water, mud and debris are thought to have flowed along a river for about two kilometres (1.2 miles) to the sea, local media said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato called on residents to remain vigilant, noting that the saturated earth has been weakened and even light rain could prove dangerous.

Though Onuma said rain had stopped in Atami for now, more is forecast, raising the possibility of further landslides.

“The situation is unpredictable,” he said.

Source: Reuters