Rescue workers slogged through mud and debris Monday looking for dozens feared missing after a giant landslide ripped through a Japanese seaside resort town, killing at least three people.
Eighty people were still unaccounted for, according to Shizuoka prefectural disaster management official Takamichi Sugiyama. Officials were preparing to release their names, hoping to reach some who might not have been caught in the landslide.
Initially, 147 of those people were unreachable, but that number was revised downward after city officials confirmed some had safely evacuated or were away when the disaster struck, it said.
The disaster is an added trial as authorities prepare for the Tokyo Olympics, due to start in less than three weeks, while Japan is still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters that rescue workers, including police, self-defense troops, firefighters and coast guard personnel, are doing their utmost “to rescue those who may be buried under the mud and waiting for help as soon as possible.”
At least 20 were initially described as missing. Since Atami is a vacation city, many apartments and homes are unoccupied for long parts of the year, with their listed residents living in other places.
The landslide occurred Saturday after several days of heavy rain. Witnesses heard a giant roar as a small stream turned into a torrent, carrying black mud, trees, rocks and debris from buildings.
Bystanders were heard gasping in horror on cell phone videos taken as it happened.
Like many seaside and mountain towns in Japan, Atami is built on steep hillsides, its roads winding through bits of forest and heavy vegetation. With other parts of the country expecting heavy downpours in what is known as Japan’s rainy season, authorities elsewhere were also surveying hillsides. NHK carried a program Monday about risk factors and warning signs that might precede a landslide.
“Many people saw their homes and belongings and everything washed away. They won’t be able to return home, and it must require an unimaginable effort to recover,” said actor Naoto Date, who happened to be visiting the area when the landslide struck.
Three people had been found dead as of early Monday, Fire and Disaster Management Agency and local officials said. Twenty-three people stranded by the mudslide were rescued, including three who were injured.
Shizuoka’s governor, Heita Kawakatsu told a news conference Sunday that construction upstream may have been a factor in the mudslide. Citing a preliminary examination by drone, Kawakatsu said massive amounts of soil that had been heaped up in the construction area had all washed down.