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Rescuers Search for Survivors in Landslide-hit Japan Town

Mangled houses and other debris swept away by a landslide are seen by a road following days of heavy rain in the Izusan area of Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture on July 4, 2021.

Rescuers in a Japanese holiday town hit by a deadly landslide searched for survivors Sunday, climbing across cracked roofs and checking cars thrown onto engulfed buildings as more rain lashed the area.

Two people have been confirmed dead after the disaster at the hot spring resort of Atami in central Japan, with 10 others rescued and around 20 still missing, a local government official said.

Torrents of mud crashed through part of the town on Saturday morning following days of heavy rain, sweeping away hillside homes and turning residential areas into a quagmire that stretched down to the nearby coast.

"It's possible that the number of damaged houses and buildings is as many as 130. I mourn the loss of life," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told ministers at an emergency meeting.

"This rainy-season front is expected to keep causing heavy rain in many areas. There is a fear that land disasters could occur even when the rain stops," he warned.

Around 1,000 rescuers including 140 military personnel were involved in the relief efforts, a Shizuoka prefecture official told AFP.

"We are trying our best to search for survivors as quickly as possible while carrying out the operation very carefully as it is still raining," he added.

Public broadcaster NHK later reported that rescue operations had been temporarily suspended due to the bad weather.

"The big electricity pylons here were shaking all over the place, and no sooner had I wondered what was going on than the mudslides were already there and in the street below too," said Chieko Oki, who works on a shopping street in the town.

"I was really scared," the 71-year-old told AFP.

Another survivor told local media he had heard a "horrible sound" and fled to higher ground as emergency workers urged people to evacuate.

On Sunday, dark water trickled past half-buried vehicles and buildings tipped from their foundations.

An air-conditioning unit dangled from one devastated home, now perched above a thick slurry of mud and debris, as military personnel stuck poles into the ground to check for bodies.

More landslides feared

Atami, around 90 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, saw rainfall of 313 millimeters in just 48 hours to Saturday -- higher than the average monthly total for July of 242.5 millimeters, according to public broadcaster NHK.

Much of Japan is currently in its annual rainy season, which lasts several weeks and often causes floods and landslides.

Scientists say climate change is intensifying the phenomenon because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, resulting in more intense rainfall.

Further downpours are forecast in the coming days across Japan's main island.

"Landslides can occur again and again at the same place even if the rain stops. Residents and rescuers should remain on alert," Takeo Moriwaki, professor of geotechnical engineering at Hiroshima Institute of Technology, told AFP.

NHK said on Sunday that at least seven other landslides had been reported across Japan.

The highest evacuation alert, which urges people "to secure safety urgently," was issued after the disaster in Atami, which has 20,000 households.

At shelters in the town, survivors wearing masks were keeping their distance from other families due to fears of coronavirus infection, media reports said.

Residents in many other cities in Shizuoka have also been ordered to evacuate.