HIROSHIMA - A total of 39 people were confirmed dead and seven remain missing on Wednesday after a series of landslides and flooding triggered by torrential rain overnight engulfed residential areas in Hiroshima, western Japan.
The government has boosted the number of Self-Defense Forces personnel deployed for rescue operations to 600 personnel to continue operations through the night. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was taking his summer vacation, cut short a game of golf to return to his office in Tokyo to deal with the disaster.
In the Asakita Ward of Hiroshima, one of the hardest hit areas, a record 217.5 millimeters of rain fell in the three hours from 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. The city of Hiroshima started issuing evacuation advisories at 4:15 a.m., but an official admitted that the action was late.
Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui voiced regret over the late issuance of evacuation advisories, saying the city will study what should be improved.
A 2-year-old boy and his 11-year-old brother died after being buried by a mudslide that engulfed their house in Asaminami Ward, adjacent to Asakita Ward, at about 3:20 a.m.
Masayuki Murakami, a 35-year-old man neighbor, said that after he noticed some movement of soil on the mountain behind his house, he phoned the children's family to urge them to evacuate. The landslide struck soon after he left his house by car.
Another man in his 40s who lived nearby heard the children's mother screaming for help and rushed to help. With his bare hands, he dug in the mud inside the house to reach the 2-year-old boy, but could not free him in time because bamboo and furniture blocked his way.
"His body was still warm," the man said.
There were also emergency calls reporting people in Asakita Ward were caught in a landslide.
A 75-year-old woman who lives in the area said the roads looked like a river. "I thought it was dangerous to go outside so I was in my room listening to disaster information all through the night," she said.
A 53-year-old firefighter died while engaged in rescue efforts in Asakita Ward. According to ward residents, landslides occurred twice between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. in the area.
Many new residential areas have been built on unstable ground in the mountains in Hiroshima. The soil in Hiroshima Prefecture is also known to have a tendency to crumble easily when it becomes saturated.
In June 1999, a landslide was triggered by heavy rain that left 32 people dead or missing in the same areas of the prefecture.
Before heading to Tokyo, the prime minister instructed government bodies to make all-out efforts to rescue those affected.
Abe, who had started playing golf at around 8 a.m. in Yamanashi Prefecture, where he was vacationing, reportedly stopped playing at around 9:20 a.m., left for Tokyo 20 minutes later and arrived at his office in Tokyo at 11 a.m.
But opposition party lawmakers criticized Abe.
"The prime minister should have not played golf. We can see how Abe's government lacks vigilance from the way he acted this morning," Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Akihiro Ohata told reporters.
Seiji Mataichi, secretary general of the small opposition Social Democratic Party, said, "I wonder whether the prime minister has been receiving timely information about the damage."
Abe returned to his vacation home in Yamanashi later in the evening.