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Hiroshima, Japan, Landslides and Flooding Kill at Least 39, Including 3 Children; Dozens Missing

August 21, 2014

We have a new article updating this story: Landslides, Floods Kill At Least 40 in Western Japan

Residents of Hiroshima, Japan are bracing for more heavy rainfall Friday morning, 48 hours after a series of 31 landslides struck the city, killing at least 39 people and leaving dozens more missing.

Efforts to rescue the missing and trapped continued under fair skies Thursday, but heavy rainfall caused the search to be suspended Friday morning as new landslide warnings were issued for the city of 1.1 million residents. Heavy rains also prompted evacuation advisories Friday for over 100,000 residents of Fukuoka Prefecture, according to the Japan Times.

The number of missing residents jumped sharply Thursday. The Asahi Shimbun, a major national newspaper, says 51 people are reported missing. Public broadcaster NHK says 43 are unaccounted for.

The landslides happened in the city's Asaminami and Asakita wards between 3:20 and 4 a.m. local time Wednesday. The Japanese government's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said landslides and debris flows had been confirmed in at least 31 locations spread across five different neighborhoods in the city, according to NHK.

(MORE: Serious Flooding Traps Residents in Phoenix)

Noriyoshi Masaoka, a firefighter with the Hiroshima Fire Department died when sediment buried him while he worked to rescue victims, according to an NHK report. The Japanese government's Fire and Disaster Management Agency said the 53-year-old firefighter died after saving five people from a collapsed residential building in the city's Kabehigashi neighborhood.

A 3-year-old child died in the same neighborhood. NHK's Hiroshima bureau identified the victim as Kazuki Hatanaka.

The Asahi Shimbun said two boys were in their home in the Yagi residential district when the mud slammed into it. Both children were pulled from the muck in a state of cardiac arrest; both later died, according to NHK.

The children were later identified as 2-year-old Towa Hirano and his 11-year-old brother, Haruto Hirano, according to NHK's Hiroshima bureau.

The broadcast organization also pinpointed at least 20 locations in Hiroshima city where people were stranded or trapped. Schools have been turned into shelters for evacuees, according to the city government's website. Some 163,000 residents have been advised to evacuate because of the continued risk of floods and landslides, though only a small fraction of them have registered at local shelters.

Fuji TV said some 1,100 residents were unable to return to their homes Wednesday night and slept in shelters.

Above: "Danger in Yagi [a Hiroshima neighborhood]. Are the people in Yagi OK?"

Live broadcasts on Japan's Fuji TV showed hillside neighborhoods sliced apart by several narrow rivers of mud, fallen trees and large boulders. Several houses and multi-family residences appeared heavily damaged or destroyed.

(WATCH: More Than 200 Killed By Flooding in These Two Countries)

One Fuji TV report showed a rescue helicopter hovering over the devastation. The broadcaster said some areas were inaccessible to emergency vehicles, so the helicopter was used to lower rescuers into the area by rope.

NHK, citing fire and rescue officials, said at least 200 calls for assistance had been made by midday Wednesday local time. The calls included people trapped in mud and debris, as well as at least one person who could not escape due to "bad legs."

Japan's Self-Defense Forces were dispatched to help in the rescue efforts. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cut short a golf vacation and returned to Tokyo to focus on the disaster, the Japan Times report also mentioned.

Hiroshima Prefecture's governor, Hidehiko Yuzaki, told reporters that "there is great damage -- we do not yet grasp the full extent -- but first we want to lend our strength to the rescue effort."

The Japan Meteorological Agency recorded 8.56 inches of rain in three hours in Asakita Ward, more than doubling the previous all-time 3-hour rainfall record at that site. Nearly 4 inches fell in one hour and over 10 inches in 24 hours, also the largest such rainfall amounts since records began for that location in 1976.

The landslides resulted from one of several localized thunderstorms that produced torrential downpours across western Japan Wednesday morning. At least one man was reportedly swept into a swollen river in Fukuoka Prefecture, according to NHK.

Heavy thunderstorms struck Fukuoka and nearby prefectures Friday morning as well, leading to flash flooding in Fukuoka City. JMA issued numerous landslide warnings across the island of Kyushu.

Scattered thunderstorms remain in the forecast across western and northern Japan in the coming days.

(FORECAST: Hiroshima | Fukuoka | Nagasaki)

The rains are adding to what's been a very wet summer for western and central Japan. A landslide in Tokushima Prefecture killed at least one person earlier this month. In July, a boy was killed and dozens were hurt in Nagano Prefecture when rains from Tropical Storm Neoguri triggered a landslide.

(MORE: Unusually Cold Weather Hits Europe)

In Kochi Prefecture, over 80 inches of rain have fallen this month in some areas, much of it from Tropical Storm Nakri and Typhoon Halong. The city of Kochi, where weather records have been kept since 1886, broke its all-time single-month rainfall record Monday, when its month-to-date rainfall total since Aug. 1 surpassed 56 inches.

Landslides a Common Threat in Japan

Landslides are a constant risk in mountainous, crowded Japan, where many homes are built on or near steep slopes. Torrential rains in the early morning apparently caused slopes to collapse in an area where many of the buildings were newly constructed.

Damage from land and mudslides has increased over the past few decades due to more frequent heavy rains, despite extensive work on stabilizing slopes. In the past decade there have been nearly 1,200 landslides a year, according to the land ministry, up from an average of about 770 a year in the previous decade.

In October last year, multiple mudslides on Izu-Oshima, an island south of Tokyo, killed 35 people, four of whose bodies were never recovered. Those slides followed a typhoon that dumped a record 824 millimeters (more than 32 inches) of rain in a single day.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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