The nation’s weather agency downgraded rain warnings by one notch from the highest emergency level in Kumamoto and Kagoshima on Kyushu island, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged local people to be “on maximum alert”.
Abe ordered 10,000 troops on stand-by for immediate deployment to join rescue and recovery operations, pledging the central government would “do its best to take emergency measures, prioritising people’s lives”.
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Two people were found “in cardio-respiratory arrest” and another was missing in landslides in Kumamoto, said Naosaka Miyahara, a disaster management official for the prefecture, using a term often used in Japan before a doctor certifies death.
“At one point in the morning, 13 people were unaccounted for but the figures are changing as we are still struggling to sort out the situation,” Miyahara told AFP.
Public broadcaster NHK said about 100 people had been stranded as roads were cut off by floods and landslides.
Television footage showed vehicles swamped at car parks near a flooding river, while several bridges were washed away.
“I can’t evacuate as a road turned into a river. It’s so scary,” a female resident told NHK.
Aerial footage showed a resident being lifted with a rope from a roof to a military helicopter as an entire town was awash with muddy water.
A massive landslide destroyed several houses with rescuers searching for missing people through half-buried windows.
“We have issued evacuation orders after record heavy rain,” said Toshiaki Mizukami, another official for Kumamoto prefecture.
“We strongly urge people to take action to protect their lives as it’s still raining quite heavily,” he told AFP.
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Kyodo News said 76,600 residents in Kumamoto and Kagoshima were ordered to evacuate their homes.
Some train services have been suspended in the region, while more than 8,000 households lost power.
Japan is currently in its rainy season, which often causes floods and landslides and prompts local authorities to issue evacuation orders.
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