Rescuers search for survivors in landslide-hit Japan town Atami

Firefighters conduct a search and rescue operation at a mudslide site in Atami on July 4, 2021.
Firefighters conduct a search and rescue operation at a mudslide site in Atami on July 4, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

ATAMI, JAPAN (AFP) - Rescuers in a Japanese town hit by a deadly landslide climbed onto cracked roofs and searched cars thrown onto engulfed buildings on Sunday (July 4), as more rain lashed the area.

Two people have been confirmed dead after the disaster at the hot-spring resort of Atami in central Japan, with 10 people rescued and around 20 still missing, a local government official said.

Torrents of mud crashed through part of the town on Saturday morning following days of heavy rain, sweeping away hillside homes and turning residential areas into a quagmire that stretched down to the nearby coast.

"It’s possible that the number of damaged houses and buildings is as many as 130. I mourn the loss of life," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told ministers at an emergency meeting.

"This rainy-season front is expected to keep causing heavy rain in many areas. There is a fear that land disasters could occur even when the rain stops," he warned.

Around 1,000 rescuers, including 140 military troops were involved in relief efforts, a Shizuoka prefecture official said.

"We are trying our best to search for survivors as quickly as possible while carrying out the operation very carefully, as it is still raining," he added.

Ms Chieko Oki, who works on a shopping street in Atami, said: "The big electricity pylons here were shaking all over the place, and no sooner had I wondered what was going on than the mudslides were already there and in the street below too."

"I was really scared," the 71-year-old told AFP.

Another survivor told local media he had heard a "horrible sound" and fled to higher ground as emergency workers urged people to evacuate.

On Sunday, dark water trickled past half-buried vehicles and buildings tipped from their foundations.

An air-conditioning unit dangled from one devastated home, now perched above a thick slurry of mud and debris.

Around 2,800 homes in Atami have been left without power, the Tokyo Electric Power Company said on Saturday.

The town, around 90km south-west of Tokyo, saw rainfall of 313mm in just the 48 hours to Saturday - higher than the average monthly total for July of 242.5mm, reported public broadcaster NHK.

Much of Japan is in its annual rainy season, which lasts several weeks and often causes floods and landslides, prompting local authorities to issue evacuation orders.

Firefighters hold up a blue tarp to conceal a body that was found in a home in Atami on July 4, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Scientists say climate change is intensifying the phenomenon because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, resulting in more intense rainfall.

In 2018, more than 200 people died as devastating floods inundated western Japan.

"Landslides can occur again and again at the same place even if the rain stops. Residents and rescuers should remain on alert," Mr Takeo Moriwaki, professor of geotechnical engineering at Hiroshima Institute of Technology, said.

Further downpours are forecast in the coming days across Japan’s main island.

NHK said on Sunday that at least seven other landslides had been reported across Japan, adding that 80 houses had been destroyed in the mudslide, which could reach as far as 2km.

At shelters in the town, survivors wearing masks were keeping their distance from other families due to fears of coronavirus infection, media reports said. 

The highest evacuation alert, which urges people "to secure safety urgently", was issued after the disaster in Atami, which has 20,000 households, reports said.

Residents in many other cities in Shizuoka have also been ordered to evacuate.