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After Typhoon, Dramatic Rescues of Residents Trapped by Floods

KAWAGOE, JAPAN — One by one, the boats arrived, having crossed a lake that did not exist the day before. They carried precious cargo: old-age patients rescued from a flooded nursing home in an exurb of Tokyo.

As Typhoon Hagibis slammed into Japan on Saturday, record levels of rain pummeled vast swathes of the country, pushing 77 rivers beyond their limits and killing at least 35 people. Even major urban centers suffered severe damage, a humbling reminder of vulnerabilities for a country that prides itself on robust infrastructure and preparedness in the face of frequent natural disasters.

Dramatic rescues played out across several trouble spots on Sunday as Japan confronted the destruction wrought by the storm, with residents pulled off roofs by helicopters or rowed out of the floodwaters in boats.

In Kawagoe, a city of about 350,000 built along the Oppegawa River in Saitama Prefecture, the river breached its banks on Saturday, flooding some neighborhoods. Inside the Kings Garden nursing home, the waters rose through the night, leaving more than 120 residents in need of rescue.

Dozens of local firefighters, prefectural police and national self-defense force troops were dispatched on Sunday to the area. They loaded the residents, most in their 80s and 90s and many suffering from dementia, into rubber dinghies and small motorized boats.

The labor-intensive operation took most of the day as each resident rode accompanied by four emergency workers per boat. When they reached dry land, the rescuers hoisted the patients onto their backs to ferry them the last few feet to safety. In a staging area, volunteers lined the residents up in wheelchairs and covered them in blankets and offered bottles of tea.

With levees failing around the country, residents sought help escaping from massive flooding in multiple regions, including some highly urban areas. Much of Nagano City, a large prefectural capital — and host of the 1998 Winter Olympics — was submerged under muddy water after a levee burst on the Chikuma River. A hospital flooded in Setagaya, a wealthy ward of Tokyo.

In Kawasaki, an industrial city between Tokyo and Yokohama where about 900,000 people had been advised to evacuate on Saturday, many areas were left underwater. In Fukushima, which was hit by the nuclear meltdown that followed an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, households in several communities were isolated by floodwaters.

Volunteers rushed to help on Sunday in Kawagoe, 30 miles from central Tokyo. “This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this,” said Kosuke Yanagawa, 34, a nurse from Saitama, who had come to help with the nursing home victims after seeing news footage of the rescue on television. “It’s surprising that this kind of flood would take place near a metropolitan area.”

Kimiko Oda, 87, said she could not sleep at all as the rain pounded the nursing home and the waters rose on Saturday night, forcing the residents to move to the second floor before rescuers arrived on Sunday.

“It was scary because I didn’t know what was happening,” said Ms. Oda, as she rested in a wheelchair under a large reflective gold space blanket. The only other time she had been so scared, said Ms. Oda, who was born in 1932, was during World War II.

The total damage caused by Typhoon Hagibis will probably take days to tally, but by Sunday evening, Kyodo, the Japanese news agency, said at least 35 people had died during the storm and 15 were still missing. At least 100 people were injured.

Some 27,000 rescue workers evacuated people from flood zones in multiple prefectures on Sunday, including Fukushima, Kanagawa, Nagano, Saitama and Tokyo.

In Kawagoe, firefighters and police officers in orange vests slowly motored small boats across flooded rice fields and through residential neighborhoods looking for people still trapped inside their homes. Some residents who had refused to evacuate decided they now wanted to be rescued, including a family with 11 cats and dogs that were carried out in travel cases on dinghies.

A good portion of the city, which hosts multiple light manufacturing and distribution companies, was unaffected. Residents rambled along the streets on foot or on bicycles. Even along the river, some neighborhoods had already dried under the hot sun that emerged after the storm passed and curiosity-seekers came to gawk at the flood zones.

In those areas, many residents were caught by surprise by the deluge. Yasuyuki Tamura, 52, a factory worker whose contract recently ended, thought he could ride out the storm in the home where he has lived most of his life.

During previous typhoons, which lash Japan several times every year, rains had flooded the entryway to the two-story home that Mr. Tamura shared with his father until his death last year. But on Saturday night, the waters just kept rising.

By 1 a.m., the water was going up by one step every hour. “I underestimated the storm and thought it would be all right,” said Mr. Tamura, as he sat in the corner of an elementary school gym where he had evacuated Sunday morning after being rescued from the second-floor veranda of his home.

He said he wasn’t sure when he could go home, given that the waters had not yet receded. The certificate for his insurance policy, he said, probably had washed away. “I never expected the water to go that high that fast,” he said, pulling out his cellphone to show a photo taken at 4 a.m., with the waters halfway up the hallway walls on the first floor of the house.

At another elementary school nearby, life went on as students squared off in a previously scheduled soccer match on an outdoor field.

Kiyoshi Odaka, 45, a construction worker whose family had evacuated from their home in Kawagoe on Saturday afternoon, watched his 12-year-old son from the sidelines.

He still had not managed to get to their home to check for damage. Based on what he had seen on television, he figured the waters might still be as high as his neck.

Mr. Odaka lamented that he had not paid more attention to the risks of buying a home seven years ago in a flood-prone area so close to the river.

“I never thought this kind of disaster would take place,” he said. But he wished the government had stricter zoning regulations to prevent developers from building homes in communities prone to natural disasters.

“Perhaps I trusted the government too much and was too optimistic,” said Mr. Odaka.

“It ended up being such a waste of money, having all these helicopters come to the rescue and having all these municipal officials who were supposed to be off on the weekend having to work,” he said. “Building houses in these areas has been such a waste of money.”

Ben Dooley contributed reporting from Tokyo, and Hisako Ueno from Okayama, Japan.

Source: NYT > World News

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