An aerial view of rescue workers searching for missing people among the debris of houses destroyed in Tanabe, Wakayama (Photo: Reuters)
Rescue teams carries out a painstaking search Monday for the missing after a typhoon pounded western Japan leaving at least 31 people dead and more than 50 unaccounted for, local authorities said.
Torrential rain brought by powerful Typhoon Talas, which made landfall Saturday and was one of the deadliest in years, caused rivers to swell and triggered floods and landslides that swept away buildings, homes and roads.
Police and firefighters resumed a search for the missing early Monday, warning that the number of victims was set to rise as the continued threat of landslides and damaged access routes hampered relief efforts.
In the deadliest typhoon since an October 2004 storm killed nearly 100 people, floods triggered by Typhoon Talas gave rise to scenes eerily reminiscent of the aftermath of the March 11 tsunami that hit northeast Japan.
In Nachikatsuura town, a railway bridge was swept into a river, while TV footage showed splintered trees, crushed houses and cars tossed onto walls and buildings by the raging floodwaters that inundated entire neighbourhoods.
By Sunday, Talas had been downgraded to a tropical storm after it moved over Japan and into the Sea of Japan (East Sea), the Meteorological Agency said, but risks of further landslides posed a threat to rescue and recovery efforts.
The storm came after new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was sworn in on Friday, replacing Naoto Kan, who was heavily criticised for the government's response in the aftermath of the March 11 disasters.
"We will do our best in saving lives and finding the missing," Noda told reporters Monday.
The Talas weather system, moving as slow as 10 kilometres (six miles) per hour, dumped 1.8 metres (six feet) of rain on a village in Nara prefecture for five days through Sunday, more than Tokyo's annual average rainfall, said the Yomiuri daily.
Wakayama prefecture was the hardest hit region, where 21 people were killed and 35 were missing. More than 200 rescue workers continued the search on the ground on Monday.
"We are struggling to get a hold on the current situation... electricity is out and destroyed roads are preventing our vehicles from going into affected areas," said an official at the fire department in Tanabe, Wakayama prefecture.
"We are conducting operations everywhere in the city. With phone lines down, however, we have no means of communication" with those stranded in areas hit by landslides or flooding, the official said.
Based on figures from local authorities, a total of 31 people were dead and over 50 unaccounted for.
The daughter of Nachikatsuura town mayor Shinichi Teramoto was killed as the official ran disaster relief operations Sunday and his wife was also missing. His house was destroyed by a torrent of water.
"I saw the body of my daughter. The best I could do was to be by her side for half an hour," NHK footage showed the mayor saying in his office.
"While I'm here, I don't want to show my sorrow even though I have this in my mind," he said.
Television footage showed massive landslides crushing wooden houses in mountain communities, with muddy water submerging streets and washing away wooden debris and cars.
A tally by Kyodo News said at least 3,600 people were left stranded by landslides and collapsed bridges.
In Wakayama and Nara prefectures, officials told AFP that more than 1,300 people were staying at evacuation centres with around 7,000 households being asked to flee.