Flood-ravaged Japanese district of Kurashiki picks up the pieces

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday visited a centre for people displaced by the recent flooding in Mabi, Okayama prefecture.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday visited a centre for people displaced by the recent flooding in Mabi, Okayama prefecture.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Complacency and lack of disaster awareness likely contributed to high death toll in floods

With the distant rumbling of thunder at 6pm yesterday, the pitter-patter of rain began to fall in the beleaguered Mabi district of Kurashiki city in Okayama prefecture.

It brought about an hour of welcome respite to residents, who have braved days of sweltering 35 deg C heat with no water and electricity, even as the nightmare of last week's 72 hours of historic rainfall remains fresh in some minds.

Clinical engineer Hidoki Kataoka, 48, standing in his wrecked two-storey home, said of the irony: "Did you know that Okayama, historically, boasts the finest weather in all of Japan? It was even once dubbed 'sunny country' (for having the most number of days in a year with precipitation under 1mm)."

Complacency - and a lack of disaster awareness - might be why Mabi district was the hardest-hit local municipality in last week's deluge that battered western Japan.

The overall death toll in Japan's worst flood disaster since 1983 has, as of last night, risen to 179, according to broadcaster NHK.

Of these, 71 were from Hiroshima prefecture and 57 from Okayama prefecture - 50 from Kurashiki city, where all but one had lived in Mabi.

The death toll is likely to go up further as the days go by. Of the 87 people who remain unaccounted for, according to an NHK roll call of names, 37 were residents of Mabi.

Yesterday, there was a constant whir of helicopters over Mabi as ground forces scoured through debris accompanied by police dogs.

 
 
 
 
 

Floodwaters have receded, leaving behind a trail of detritus - and everything else caked in mud. Electrical appliances, along with garbage bags of mud-soaked clothing and mattresses lined the roads as residents threw everything out.

The Takahashi and Koda rivers both overflowed last week, sending a torrent of floodwater gushing into the 44 sq km Mabi district that was home to around 22,800 people. One-third of the area, with about 4,600 homes, was submerged.

Mr Kataoka, who lives with his wife and father near the Takahashi River, opted to flee last Friday night after observing the fast-rising water levels - and even before the evacuation warnings were issued.

This disaster response system was lambasted by domestic media yesterday, with reports noting that many of the dead in Mabi were in their homes, which means they did not have enough time to flee.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visited Okayama prefecture yesterday, offered flowers and silent prayers in Mabi, before visiting two evacuation centres.

He said the government will do all that it can to financially support individual municipalities in disaster recovery - including through building temporary housing. Some two billion yen (S$24 million) of reserve funds has been set aside.

Mercy Relief, a Singapore-based disaster relief agency, was last night en route to Kurashiki city for the first phase of its emergency relief operations, which will include the distribution of more than 6,000 hot meals for the displaced.

It is launching a public fund-raising effort in Singapore from today to Aug 11.

Credit card donations can be made at www.mercyrelief.org, or via its crowdfunding page at www.giving.sg/mercy-relief/japanfloods2018

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2018, with the headline 'Flood-ravaged Japanese district picks up the pieces'. Print Edition | Subscribe