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'Like a disaster': 4 dead, 33 injured amid efforts to clear snow in central Japan pref.

A snowplow is seen removing snow that accumulated in the city of Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture, on Jan. 10, 2021. (Mainichi/Makoto Ishizuka)

NIIGATA -- While record snowfalls apparently passed their peak on Jan. 11 in parts of this central Japan prefecture, the removal of snow continues to fall behind in places including the city of Joetsu, where over 2 meters accumulated.

    There has been a spate of accidents while clearing snow -- four people died between the evenings of Jan. 10 to 11, and at least 33 people were injured on Jan. 11. All four died while removing snow on their own.

    In Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture, a woman in her 30s shoveling snow near a car that was buried seemed to be at a loss when she told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I have to go to work tomorrow, but this is like a disaster."

    On Jan. 11, the Joetsu Municipal Government held a heavy snow countermeasures headquarters meeting for the second time at city hall. The city says it is proceeding to clear snow giving priority to major roads leading to facilities including hospitals and train stations, but snow has accumulated beyond capacity, and it's not clear when removal work will be completed.

    The municipal government is working with over 100 businesses to remove snow and has secured routes leading to five snow disposal sites in the city. It will also work to clear major routes leading to two locations in which snow disposal sites are scheduled to open. The city decided to close facilities including elementary, junior high and high schools until Jan. 15.

    Mayor Hideyuki Murayama explained, "First of all, it's important that we secure snow disposal sites. Even though snow removal workers are extremely exhausted, they are doing their job." He called on residents to refrain from nonessential and nonurgent outings as well as parking on the streets.

    ***

    Around 5:40 p.m. on Jan 10, a 64-year-old company employee in the prefectural city of Sanjo died after falling on a road by his house. According to Sanjo Police Station, he is believed to have fallen together with snow from the roof above the second floor during removal work.

    An 84-year-old farmer in Niigata's Akiha Ward died around 4 p.m. on Jan. 10 after being buried in snow next to the entrance of his home. According to Akiha Police Station, he is believed to have died due to a snowslide.

    Around 5:30 p.m. on Jan 10, an 87-year-old unemployed person in Joetsu's Kubiki Ward died due to hemorrhage shock while pushing a snowplow near the entrance of their home. As cuts from what seem like blades were found on their foot and other parts of their body, Joetsu Police Station believes they got caught up in the machine.

    A 66-year-old unemployed man in Sanjo drowned around 10:20 a.m. on Jan 11 after falling into a ditch near his home. According to Sanjo Police Station, a snow shovel was found near him, and it is believed he fell into the ditch while removing snow around his house.

    ***

    Over a 72-hour period, 178 centimeters of snow fell in Takada, Joetsu; 163 centimeters in Nou, Itoigawa; 110 centimeters in Niigata's Akiha Ward -- all record highs. As of 4 p.m. on Jan. 11, Joetsu's Yasuzuka Ward recorded 281 centimeters of snowfall, while Tokamachi recorded 275 centimeters, Kashiwazaki 117 centimeters, and Niigata's Chuo Ward 59 centimeters. Even observation points that usually have low snowfall registered five to eight times the amount of a normal year.

    On the night of Jan. 10, the Niigata Prefectural Government asked the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to send its members to the city of Kawasaki on a disaster relief mission, citing that the city could not keep up with work to remove snow from housetops as it has continued to snow. The JSDF members took part in snow removal work at facilities for the elderly, before being asked to withdraw on the evening of Jan. 11.

    The request to have SDF dispatched for snowfall relief was the second after that by the city of Joetsu.

    (Japanese original by Makoto Ishizuka, Joetsu Local Bureau; and Mayuka Ikeda and Aya Iguchi, Niigata Bureau)

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