HIROSHIMA, Japan: When a powerful surge of mud started to sweep through the tidy streets of Yanohigashi, many of its residents were totally caught off guard.
Flooding is not so uncommon in the district, and residents have seen rising waters before. But as a deluge of rain – eventually up to 50 centimetres across three days – started pounding the region on Friday (Jul 6), they did not foresee how destructive and deadly the situation would become.
“When the mudslide happened, I heard the sound of big rocks falling in front of my house. It was a loud sound. But actually it was a car coming down. I was shocked,” said local resident Hatsue Matsuda.
“Still, we just stayed at home, watching the situation. They told us to evacuate but we stayed. This type of disaster had never happened before. Normally the water just got high.”
She would stand in her house and see tragedy unfold as her neighbours attempted to evacuate their homes.
“One of our neighbours tried to evacuate and she was waiting in her car. Her husband was in the house to get their children and just after he came outside, she was swept away and found dead later,” she said.
In Hiroshima prefecture, at least 48 people are dead and 22 missing, according to official government records from Tuesday. In total, the death toll across all affected areas reached 179 on Wednesday, with scores more people still unaccounted for.
This event is now Japan’s most deadly since the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in 2011. It is the country’s worst flood event in decades.
The government has deployed 75,000 emergency personnel across the region to help with the search for survivors, albeit with fading hopes of any miracle breakthroughs, days since the rains eased.
“We are checking every single house to see if there are people still trapped inside them,” an official with the Okayama prefecture government told AFP.
“We know it’s a race against time, we are trying as hard as we can.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe put off a trip to Europe to monitor the relief mission, viewing the “scars” of the flooding from a helicopter and visiting survivors in nearby, hard-hit Okayama prefecture.
“We’re going to support your life for sure,” Abe told victims of the disaster. “It must have been hard for you.
“Looking at the town now, I realise how big the damage is.”
In Yanohigashi town, an active search continues for several people still missing. Teams of workers are scouring the deep mud and ruined homes.
There is a long, distinct path of damage, following what is now just a stream of brown water churning down an incline into a valley.
Cars – as if involved in violent pile-ups – have been thrown, buried and busted by the force of the deluge. Shattered glass and twisted metal are strewn across the landscape, like brutal remnants of a sickening crash derby.
Yet, some 20 metres on either side of the demolished buildings and fallen power piles, homes lie untouched – the power and water disconnected and the houses unlivable for now, but still standing.
One of the more startling realisations evident in the aftermath of this disaster is how many people escaped with their assets and selves unharmed.
“On that day I was working and I came home early because I saw it was going to rain a lot. Everyone in the city tried to get back early,” said resident Kazunori Okimoto, whose house is mostly undamaged.
“Just after my wife got home the water suddenly got so high and big rocks and cars were being swept down.”
But more tales of loss and uncertainty echo in this small community of about ten thousand. Most of its members have flocked together in evacuation centres around the town, just a small number of the approximately two million Japanese forced out of their homes this week.
“I heard there is student missing, one of my neighbours. He went to check on his grandparents’ safety. He’s missing now,” said a visibly emotional resident, Noriko Suga.
“Everyone is in a very difficult situation,”