KUMANO, JAPAN - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited flood-stricken parts of Japan on Wednesday as the death toll from the worst weather disaster in 36 years reached 176 and health worries increased amid scorching heat and the threat of new floods.
Torrential rain unleashed floods and landslides in western Japan last week, bringing death and destruction in particular to neighborhoods built decades ago near steep slopes.
At least 176 people were killed, the government said, with dozens missing in Japan's worst weather disaster since 1982.
Abe, who cancelled an overseas trip to deal with the disaster, was criticized after a photograph posted on Twitter showed Abe and his defense minister at a party with lawmakers just as the rains intensified.
After observing the damage from a helicopter flying over Okayama, one of the hardest-hit areas, Abe visited a crowded evacuation center. He crouched down on the floor to speak with people, many of them elderly, and asked about their health. He clasped one man's hands as they spoke.
Abe is up for re-election as party leader in September and has seen his popularity ratings edge back up after taking a hit over a cronyism scandal earlier this year.
His government pledged an initial $4 billion towards recovery on Tuesday, and a later special budget if needed.
Rescuers faced a scorching sun as they combed through heaps of wood and thickly caked mud in a grim search for bodies, helped by sniffer dogs. In some cases only the foundation of houses remained as rescuers cut through debris with chain saws.
"My younger brother still hasn't been found. We in the family are coming here to wait in shifts," one woman told NHK television as she watched over the ruins left by a landslide.
With temperatures of 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit) or higher predicted for the devastated areas in Okayama and Hiroshima prefectures, attention turned to preventing heat-stroke among rescue workers and in evacuation centers where thousands of people sought shelter.
People sat cross-legged on thin mats on a gymnasium floor in one center, plastic bags of belongings piled around them and bedding folded off to the side. Portable fans turned slowly as children cried.
Officials turned to social media to warn of the additional danger of food-borne illnesses, urging people to wash their hands and take other measures against food poisoning.
Evacuation orders were issued for 25 households in the city of Fukuyama after cracks were found in a reservoir.
Water accumulating behind piles of debris blocking rivers also posed a danger after a swollen river rushed into a Fukuyama residential area on Monday, prompting more evacuation orders.
The intensifying heat was expected to trigger more thunderstorms on Wednesday, with authorities warning new landslides could be set off on mountainsides saturated with water.
Japanese media on Wednesday focused on the timing of evacuation orders issued in the hard-hit Mabi district of Kurashiki city just minutes before a levee broke and water poured into the residential area.
A number of the dead in Mabi were found in their homes, suggesting they did not have enough time to flee, media reports said.