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Quake-triggered landslides transform tranquil town of Atsuma

Buildings hit by a landslide are seen in the Yoshino district of Atsuma, Hokkaido, on Sept. 6, 2018. (Mainichi)

ATSUMA, Hokkaido -- Landslides triggered by a powerful earthquake in Hokkaido, northern Japan, in the predawn hours of Sept. 6 drastically changed the tranquil scenery of rural Atsuma. Three people died, four others were found in cardio-respiratory arrest and 28 others remain unaccounted for.

Large sections of mountain slopes collapsed and soil engulfed houses where occupants were sleeping. Residents who managed to avoid damage were stunned by the scene.

The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) forecasts that a large amount of rain will fall in the prefecture's Iburi district that includes Atsuma on Sept. 7 and 8, as aftershocks continue to jolt the town.

Power and water supplies remain cut off to Atsuma. Residents at evacuation shelters in the town expressed concerns about how long they will live as evacuees.

Toshikazu Watanabe, 64, a farmer in the town's Tomisato district, recalled when he heard the earth rumbling. "I heard scary sounds that I had never heard before," he said.

A landslide engulfed his uncle's home next to his. Luckily, Watanabe's home remained intact and his wife and mother were not injured, and no one was at his uncle's house at the time of the disaster.

"If the landslide had moved in a slightly different direction, I wonder what would've happened to us," he said.

Farmer Hideo Konya, 75, a resident of the town's Sakuraoka district, was asleep when his home was hit by the strong shaking of the temblor. He was unable to stand up because of the shaking. Soil crushed his home immediately after he and his wife crawled out of the structure. They barely survived.

"I never imagined that a thing like this would happen to my home," said a shocked Watanabe.

The town's Yoshino, Tomioka, Takaoka and Horonai districts were particularly hit hard by landslides, according to the Atsuma Municipal Government, with many of their residents still unaccounted for.

Residents of Atsuma, Hokkaido, hit hard by quake-triggered landslides, are seen at an evacuation shelter in the town on Sept. 6, 2018. (Mainichi)

"The Yoshino district and surrounding areas were devastated by landslides to the extent that neighborhoods have vanished," said a person involved in search and rescue work.

A prefectural road leading to the Yoshino district was buried under soil. Ambulances were able to resume driving on the road on the afternoon of Sept. 6, but soil still remaining on the road is blocking the passage of large vehicles, hindering search and rescue efforts.

In the Tomisato district, a home inhabited by a man in his 60s collapsed after being hit by a mudslide, and a 59-year-old relative living next door was watching over work to rescue him. It remains to be seen if the man is safe.

"I guess he was distracted by the sound of furniture falling down, and was unable to notice the sound of the landslide. We'd just recently asked after each other's crops, and whether typhoons had caused damage to them," said the relative.

An 84-year-old woman living in the city of Tomakomai said she cannot contact her brother and his wife living in Atsuma. "I rushed to the town (Atsuma) in a car driven by my grandchild. My brother is kindhearted and he and his wife get along well," she said, occasionally wiping away tears.

As of 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 6, some 920 people were staying at seven evacuation shelters set up by the municipal government.

Atsuko Mitani, 60, a part-time worker staying at one of the shelters set up at a municipal welfare center with some 490 other residents, expressed concerns about living in evacuation. "I'm uncertain about the future of my life at the evacuation shelter. If another strong quake occurs, the building could collapse. It's dangerous," she said.

Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) personnel set up water supply tanks at the shelter on the evening of Sept. 6, while volunteers began serving meals for evacuees. Several hundred town residents lined up with containers to fill with water.

According to the GSDF, personnel involved in relief operations are securing water in the city of Chitose and other areas, but cannot transport the water smoothly due to traffic conditions.

"I waited about an hour. It's inevitable. Water is so precious," a woman in her 40s said.

Staff and 47 residents of a care home for disabled people moved to a shelter set up at a community center in the town's Hongo district. The manager of the facility deemed that a fire could break out at the care home because a boiler and gas cylinders collapsed in the quake.

The residents of the facility are aged between 20 and 92 with severe disabilities who need assistance with everyday tasks such as eating meals and taking baths.

However, the community center is not suitable for those in wheelchairs, and there are not enough beds or tables for meals. Moreover, at least one of the residents has a gastrostomy tube that delivers nutrition directly to the stomach.

Tomoyuki Fujita, deputy chief of the home's assistance division, admitted that he is worried about how to secure a suitable facility to care for the home's residents.

"No water is available and sanitary conditions cannot be maintained at the community center. We can only stay here for several days at most. We're looking for another facility that can accept us, but I'm worried about whether we can find one," Fujita said.

The disaster has also raised concerns about possible flooding in the town. The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry announced on Sept. 6 that a landslide partially buried a waterway connected to Atsuma Dam, and that the barrier could overflow if there are heavy rains. Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Ken Saito said the disaster task force is considering measures to prepare for rains. According to the ministry, the dam is filled to capacity but officials believe the possibility of flooding is slim at this point.

Search and rescue work has been underway since Sept. 6 at sites in Atsuma hit by landslides. At around 9:30 p.m., police officers and Self-Defense Forces personnel were seen taking turns digging soil that had buried houses while relying on floodlights.

The town of Atsuma is a farming area facing the Pacific Ocean with a population of some 4,670, according to the municipal government's website. The town is known for its production of haskap berries used in cakes, jams and fruit liquor and as a spot for surfing.

(Japanese original by Shuntaro Sawa, Hidehiro Fukushima and Jun Konno, Hokkaido News Department, Ryuji Tanaka, Special Reports Group, and Tomohiro Katahira, City News Department)

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