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Rescuers struggle to locate dozens in landslide-hit Japan town

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Members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces sift through mud and debris as they search for missing people at the scene of a landslide in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, on July 5, 2021. – Rescuers in the Japanese holiday town hit by a deadly landslide were forced to suspend their search for survivors several times on July 4 as more rain lashed the devastated area. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

Authorities in a landslide-hit Japanese holiday town are holding out hope of locating at least 64 residents after rescue teams spent Monday trawling through the muddy debris looking for survivors.

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Soldiers and emergency workers used hand-held poles and mechanical diggers in the desperate search, two days after a torrent of earth slammed down a mountainside and through part of the hot-spring resort of Atami in central Japan.

Rescue operations were suspended in the evening and will resume early Tuesday, city officials said.

Four people have been confirmed dead, although officials are struggling to pinpoint the whereabouts of dozens as they scour the wreckage of 130 homes and other buildings that were destroyed.

Pylons were toppled, vehicles buried and buildings tipped from their foundations in the disaster, with aerial footage from the mountaintop showing a stark brown wedge gouged out of the green hillside.

“As of today, at least 64 people are still unaccounted for,” the city’s disaster-management spokesman Yuta Hara told AFP after the city released their names in a bid to gather information about their status.

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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the focus was still on finding survivors, with hundreds of rescue workers “doing their best to rescue as many people as possible, as soon as possible”.

The Saturday landslide descended in several violent waves during Japan’s annual rainy season, following days of intense downpours in and around Atami.

Survivors at a nearby evacuation centre told AFP on Sunday of their panic when the landslide began.

“When I opened the door, everyone was rushing into the street and a policeman came up to me and said: ‘What are you doing here, you have to hurry, everyone is evacuating!'” resident Kazuyo Yamada said.

“So I went out in the rain in a hurry, without changing, with just a bag.”

Rescuers on Monday took advantage of a break in the rain to continue their search, wading through streams of murky water and moving blocks of timber and other debris out of the way.

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Non-compulsory evacuation orders have been issued to more than 35,700 people across Japan, mostly in the Shizuoka region, including Atami, which is around 90 kilometres (55 miles) southwest of Tokyo.

The weather agency forecast heavy rain in the wider region, warning that more landslides could occur.

Atami reportedly recorded more rainfall in 48 hours than it usually does for the whole of July, and survivors told local media they had never experienced such strong rain in their lives.

Scientists say climate change is intensifying Japan’s rainy season because a warmer atmosphere holds more water.

In 2018, more than 200 people died as devastating floods inundated western Japan, and last year dozens were killed as the coronavirus pandemic complicated relief efforts.

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