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Residents underestimated rain disaster flooding that washed away Kurashiki homes

The Arii neighborhood of the Mabicho district of the Okayama Prefecture city of Kurashiki is seen submerged by muddy water on July 7, 2018. (Photo courtesy of a local resident)

KURASHIKI, Okayama -- Residents of the Arii neighborhood of Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, apparently underestimated the extent of flooding that ravaged the area following downpours in early July, washing away homes and sparking thousands of rescues.

The swollen Suemasa River, a tributary of the Oda River, burst its banks in three locations, flooding the area before the Kurashiki Municipal Government issued an evacuation advisory at 1:30 a.m. on July 7.

One of the residents said he saw a home being directly hit by a rapid flow of water from a flooded river, washing the home away.

"The muddy stream was just like a whirlpool," another resident said. The Arii neighborhood is part of the Mabicho district of the city where roughly 30 percent of the land area was submerged.

Takayuki Takatsuki, 34, who was staying at his home about 200 meters east of the Suemasa River, recalled that when he saw the rain, he had thought that his house might be flooded only slightly above floor level in a worst-case scenario. He built his home in a newly developed residential area about three years ago. He had seen a hazard map showing that the neighborhood could be flooded, but said, "I had heard that the area had never been submerged before."

Takatsuki stayed home while his wife and 2-year-old daughter evacuated to a relative's home at around 9 p.m. on July 6, and he lifted furniture and other household goods to the second floor. An evacuation advisory was issued for the entire Mabicho district at 10 p.m. By that time, the total rainfall since it started raining had already reached 182 millimeters -- more than monthly average rainfall for a normal year -- and water levels in nearby rivers were rapidly rising.

A man in his 50s living near Takatsuki made up his mind to flee after seeing a nearby drain almost overflowing.

"My home wasn't flooded at that stage but I thought water levels in the drain would be a yardstick (for deciding whether to evacuate)," the man said.

Many other residents, however, were still staying home.

"Roads were covered with water but I thought it was still safe," a woman in her 40 said.

Some residents of the Arii neighborhood were still watching World Cup soccer games on TV despite the heavy rain.

The municipal authority was calling on local residents through the public address system to evacuate, but one woman in her 70s commented, "I couldn't hear what they were saying because the sound was breaking up."

From that point, the situation only worsened. At 12:30 a.m. on July 7, the Oda River that flows east to west through the Mabicho district overflowed. At almost the same time, the Suemasa River began to overflow.

A man in his 70s who lives near where the river breached both banks saw from the second floor of his home water was overflowing from the river. When the man went out, he saw a neighbor being swept away. He hastily grabbed a rope and joined hands with people near him to rescue the man.

"The man's glasses had been washed away, and he looked pale," the man in his 70s recalled.

A 35-year-old man who lives on the other side of the river saw the river violently overflowing toward a residential area. The flood directly hit a home nearby and the structure was ripped from its foundations and washed away. A 71-year-old woman who had lived there was subsequently found dead.

"I think the Suemasa River had breached its dike by that time. I thought I could no longer escape and went upstairs," the 35-year-old resident recalled.

An evacuation order was issued to the entire Mabicho district at 1:30 a.m. By the time a man staying on the third floor of a building was rescued on the afternoon of July 7, buildings in the area had been flooded above the second-floor level.

Many residents were stranded in their homes due to sudden flooding. Rescue workers from the Self-Defense Forces and fire stations rescued about 2,350 people in the area.

"I hadn't comprehended the terror of floods," said a man in his 70s.

While pointing out that the city issued the evacuation order too late, a 76-year-old man recalled, "I think everybody underestimated the disaster. If someone had visited the neighborhood and urged us to evacuate, it might have generated a sense of crisis among residents."

(Japanese original by Shigeto Hanazawa, Osaka Cultural News Department, Takashi Okamura, Osaka City News Department, Yuki Ohigashi, Kyoto Bureau, and Nana Hayashida, Okayama Bureau)

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