Japan’s Meteorological Agency had issued rare “emergency warnings” about landslides, rising rivers, strong winds and lightning strikes caused by what it called “historic” rains in 23 prefectures across the western and central parts of the country. The rains began Thursday and continued into Sunday in many areas.
Such warnings are issued in anticipation of the sort of extreme conditions that occur just once or twice in 50 years, Kyodo News reported.
“There are still many people missing and others in need of help. We are working against time,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Sunday morning.
More than 1.6 million people were ordered to evacuate their homes, while 3.1 million were put on high alert and urged to do so. Nevertheless, Kyodo said, many had remained at home.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said 54,000 police officers, firefighters, and members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and coast guard had been mobilized in the rescue effort, Kyodo reported, with TV footage showing them using boats and helicopters to bring people to safety.
Public broadcaster NHK said flooding and landslides were hindering rescue efforts, and repeatedly urged people not to lose hope.
Among the dead was a 3-year-old girl whose home was hit by a landslide in Hiroshima prefecture, Reuters reported.
“It’s very painful,” said one elderly man watching nearby. “I have a granddaughter the same age. If it were her, I wouldn’t be able to stop crying.”
Two sisters from an elementary school with just six pupils on the small island of Nuwa in Ehime prefecture also died, according to Reuters. The younger, a first-grader, was a star and the hope of the depopulated island, the principal told NHK.
The western Hiroshima prefecture was hit the hardest by landslides, which claimed 37 lives, while 21 people died in Ehime, NHK reported.
In August 2014, 77 people died in Hiroshima when torrential rain triggered massive landslides, but one resident told Kyodo that the rains were heavier this time.
Auto manufacturers Mitsubishi and Mazda were forced to halt production at some factories because they could not get parts or did not want to force employees to travel to work in dangerous conditions, Kyodo reported.