TOKYO • Japanese rescue workers searched the ruins of homes yesterday looking for dozens of people still missing after deadly rain that killed more than 200 people.
Operations were under way to dig out and clear up after the devastating floods and landslides that engulfed entire neighbourhoods.
But with around 60 people still feared missing, local authorities said they would continue searching house by house looking for survivors, or victims.
"The critical 72 hours have passed," acknowledged Mr Mutsunari Imawaka, an official with Okayama prefecture, one of the worst-hit regions. "But we will continue our search believing there are still survivors," he said.
He said at least 18 people were missing in Okayama alone, and that several thousand people were checking houses across the region.
Television footage showed dozens of rescuers, including troops, removing massive rocks with mechanical diggers from houses buried in landslides. Rescuers were also manually shovelling dirt to search for missing people.
The torrential rain is the deadliest weather-related disaster in over three decades in Japan, and the size of the death toll has raised questions about whether authorities were sufficiently prepared.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the death toll from the disaster reached 201.
"It's an undeniable fact that this sort of disaster due to torrential, unprecedented rain is becoming more frequent in recent years," he told a news conference in Tokyo, adding that saving lives was the government's biggest duty.
"We recognise that there's a need to look into steps we can take to reduce the damage from disasters like this even a little bit," he said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who cancelled a foreign trip as the death toll rose this week, brushed aside criticism of the response during a trip to Okayama on Wednesday. "We have done our best since the disaster happened," local media quoted him as saying.
He yesterday pledged to ramp up help for affected areas and said the government had secured 71,000 temporary homes for evacuees.
"Looking ahead, as we are expecting a massive amount of disaster-generated waste, I plan to send a team to each prefecture to support" clean-up efforts, Mr Abe said, according to footage of a morning meeting aired on local television.
The government has already said it will set aside around US$20 million (S$27.2 million) for the relief effort and Mr Abe said there would be financial support for local governments to help with the reconstruction effort.
Mr Abe, who is due to visit another disaster-affected area today, said the government would "do everything we can so that people will not have to continue living in uncomfortable situations in shelters".
Around 10,000 people whose homes were buried by landslides or submerged in floodwaters are still in shelters. Even some of those whose homes were not destroyed were struggling with water and electricity shortages.
Military vehicles were being used to deliver drinking water to areas without supplies, and a steady stream of volunteers were signing up to help the clean-up operation or offer donations. The scale of the disaster means that the process of returning to normal life will be slow, officials said.
"We don't know how long it will take for the recovery," said Mr Imawaka. "The roads and water systems are damaged, so it's hard to predict at this moment."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS