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Rescuers continue search for missing in mud after downpours in western Japan

The Yoshida water treatment plant in the Ehime Prefecture city of Uwajima is seen here on July 12, 2018. (Mainichi)

HIROSHIMA/KURASHIKI, Okayama -- July 13 marks a week since torrential downpours hit a large swath of western Japan. The number of casualties, concentrated primarily in the Chugoku and Shikoku regions, has reportedly hit 200, with searches ongoing for dozens of missing people. Meanwhile, some 7,000 people remain in evacuation centers and there are concerns their makeshift living conditions in the summer heat may continue for some time.

In the Mabicho district of the Okayama Prefecture city of Kurashiki, which suffered widespread damage when the embankments of the Oda River -- a tributary of the Takahashi River that runs through western Okayama Prefecture -- burst, four firefighters stood in a line in a swamp overgrown with weeds on the afternoon of July 12. Drenched in sweat, they pushed slowly through the accumulated mud with rods, looking for people who'd gone missing in the floods.

"Make sure you don't miss anything," said 38-year-old Akihiko Inoue, head of rescue operations at Kurashiki Fire Station, who was leading the team. "Don't strain yourself too much."

In Mabicho district, where approximately 8,900 households reside, 12 square kilometers, which amounts to 30 percent of the district's land area, was submerged in floodwaters by the morning of July 7. Police and firefighters have been searching for missing people since the water receded. Thus far, the bodies of 50 people have been found, mostly inside homes. However, the Okayama Prefectural Government has been informed that 20 people are still missing.

Searches of residences have almost been completed, and now authorities are combing areas near the embankments of the Oda River, rice paddies and ditches, fearing people could have been carried away by floodwaters. But awaiting the rescuers is a waterlogged area equivalent in size to at least 300 Hanshin Koshien Stadiums. "It's too massive compared to the team we have," Inoue said.

Many of those who died or have gone missing in the floods and other related disasters have been elderly residents, who are some of the most vulnerable people during disasters. Of those whose ages have been ascertained, at least 80 percent are 65 years or older, and many are in their 80s and 90s. Water is believed to have risen to heights of 3 or 4 meters, or the equivalent of the second floor of a house, in a wide area affected by flooding. Water levels likely surged from the predawn hours into the early morning, and elderly people living alone probably had no time to seek help before they were swallowed by muddy waters.

The prefectural government has released the names of the missing, and is seeking information about them. Takeko Furusawa, 68, worried about her missing 85-year-old neighbor Tsuyako Kofuji, who lived alone in the Mabicho district of Kurashiki. "I hope that she's found safe and sound as soon as possible," she said.

In Hiroshima Prefecture, which saw numerous mudslides resulting from the torrential rains, search efforts have been time-consuming, because authorities are taking extra precautions to prevent further disasters.

Seven are still missing around the Umego housing complex in Aki Ward of the city of Hiroshima. According to the Metropolitan Police Department's emergency rescue team carrying out rescue activities there, they received information on the morning of July 12 that a mountainside dam holding back mud was at risk of a breach. The start time for rescue efforts was pushed back to check on the dam's condition. As it turned out, mud had accumulated at the dam, but authorities determined that the dam was not at risk of overflowing or breaking, and search efforts were begun an hour later than planned.

"There are people whose homes have been washed away," said a 49-year-old local man who was voluntarily participating in search efforts. "We still don't know where the people are." His voice was tinged with frustration.

(Japanese original by Tomo Yamaguchi and Yuta Shibayama, Osaka City News Department; Tetsuro Hatakeyama, Osaka Science and Environment News Department)

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