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Man who worked on Fukushima recovery died after setting up typhoon shelter

The area near where Ryohei Ouchi's vehicle was found is pictured in Odaka Ward in the city of Minamisoma on Oct. 16, 2019, three days after the area was flooded by Typhoon Hagibis. (Mainichi/Hideo Takahashi)

MINAMISOMA, Fukushima -- A young victim of Typhoon Hagibis who perished after arranging shelter for others in this Fukushima Prefecture city has been hailed as a figure with a strong desire to see the region recover from the March 2011 nuclear disaster.

Ryohei Ouchi, 25, died in flooding brought by Typhoon Hagibis, the 19th recorded this year, while driving home in the northeastern Japan city shortly after midnight on Oct. 12.

At about 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 13, Ouchi phoned his family, saying, "I'm coming home now. Leave the door unlocked for me," and set out from the city's Odaka Ward office. But about 10 minutes later, he phoned his workplace, saying, "I sunk after crossing the Odaka River. Water got into the car and I escaped." Contact with him was lost after this.

Ouchi's colleagues searched for him, but couldn't find him. Then at about 1:40 a.m., his family phoned the ward office, telling them that he hadn't come home yet. Police, firefighters and his family members then joined in the search for him.

At about 2:50 a.m., Ouchi's car was found on a prefectural road about 1 kilometer west of the ward office. His body was found in a field nearby at about 5:30 a.m.

Marks inside Ouchi's car showed that the water level in the vehicle had reached a height of about 50 centimeters. It is believed that he was swept away after getting out of the vehicle.

An evacuation order in place over Odaka Ward in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station was lifted in July 2016 with the exception of certain areas. Still the number of residents stood at just 30% of the population before the nuclear disaster.

The reconstruction base facility where Ouchi worked had opened in January this year, serving as a place to promote the health of and exchange among residents. A colleague who was close to him mourned his death.

"He explained things carefully to those around him, and used honorific language, even with children. Just the other day I heard him say, 'I want to do my best to aid the recovery,'" the colleague lamented.

At the time of the nuclear disaster in March 2011, Ouchi was a student at an industrial high school in Odaka Ward, and he experienced life in a shelter himself. After graduating from a vocational school in the northeast Japan city of Sendai in neighboring Miyagi Prefecture, he returned to his hometown in 2015, and began working at Minamisoma City Hall.

His 56-year-old father Toshimasa commented, "He was a son who had feelings for his hometown and for his family. There were few young people in the town (following the nuclear disaster), I so guess he wanted to help out."

At the same time, he had lingering questions over the circumstances leading to his son's death. "Why did the city send him home late at night? Why didn't they contact his family even just a little earlier?" he asked.

City Mayor Kazuo Monma expressed sorrow over Ouchi's death. "It's absolutely heartbreaking to see the loss of a worker who labored earnestly to protect the lives and assets of residents," he said. "I sincerely regret not being able to protect his life, and I don't know how I should express my apology."

(Japanese original by Hideo Takahashi, Minamisoma Local Bureau)

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