Japan PM Shinzo Abe meets rain disaster survivors, pledges more aid

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting evacuated residents at a makeshift evacuation center in the flood-devastated town of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture, western Japan, on July 11, 2018.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting evacuated residents at a makeshift evacuation center in the flood-devastated town of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture, western Japan, on July 11, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO (AFP, REUTERS) - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met on Friday (July 13) with survivors of devastating rains that killed at least 204 people in flash flooding and landslides, as the government pledged more aid.

The toll from the record rainfall that hit the country's western region has continued to rise, as rescue workers dig through the debris and find the remains of dozens of people reported missing.

Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said on Friday that the toll was now 204 dead, with 28 people still missing.

Around 73,000 rescue workers including police and troops "are working as hard as they can, with the priority on saving lives", he said.

Abe, who earlier this week cancelled a foreign tour, travelled for a second time to areas hit by the disaster.

Television footage showed him visiting Seiyo in Ehime prefecture, where he visited homes damaged in the disaster and talked to residents trying to clean up.

On Friday morning, meeting with the government's taskforce on the disaster, Abe pledged new assistance.

The government has already said it will tap around US$18 million (S$24.6 million) in reserve funds from this year's budget, and Abe said US$312 million in tax grants would be disbursed early to local governments in affected areas.

"I want local governments in disaster-hit areas to do all they can for emergency assistance and reconstruction, without hesitating to spend," he said.

The financial cost of the disaster is still being calculated, but the agriculture ministry said Friday it has assessed losses of at least US$207 million.

 
 
 

That figure is likely to rise further as clean-up operations continue and the scale of the damage becomes clear.

It "could be the tip of the iceberg, as we are still unable to go and inspect fields," ministry official Yasuhisa Hamanaka told AFP.

Agriculture Minister Ken Saito said the cost of some vegetables had already shot up between 10-30 per cent and that the ministry would be "closely monitoring" price hikes.

Meanwhile, Japanese municipal workers were struggling on Friday to restore water supply. 

Communities that grappled with rising floodwaters last week now find themselves battling scorching summer temperatures well above 30 deg  C, as foul-smelling garbage piles up in mud-splattered streets. 

“We need the water supply back,” said Hiroshi Oka, 40, a resident helping to clean up the Mabi district in one of the hardest-hit areas, the city of Kurashiki in Okayama prefecture. More than 200,000 households in Kurashiki have gone without water for a week. 

“What we are getting is a thin stream of water, and we can’t flush toilets or wash our hands,” he added, standing over a 20-litre plastic tank that was only partly filled after almost four hours of waiting.  

Water supply has been restored to some parts of the district, a city official told Reuters, but he did not know when normal operation would resume, as engineers are still trying to locate water pipeline ruptures. 

The soaring temperatures have fuelled concern that residents, many still in temporary evacuation centres, may suffer heat strokes or illness as hygiene levels deteriorate.

The size of the toll in what is now Japan's worst weather-related disaster in over three decades has also prompted questions about whether authorities were properly prepared and acted effectively.

The English-language Japan Times daily noted that the flooding that engulfed Mabi was in line with forecasts from local authorities. 

But "evacuation orders were issued by the city to residents in some areas of the district just minutes before the breach of the embankment took place," the newspaper said in an editorial. "We need to scrutinise our defences against such disasters, identify the weak points and fix them."