Japan launches major search operation after deadly typhoon kills dozens

The death toll from the powerful typhoon that hammered Japan continues to rise. Hagibis' record-setting rain flooded entire neighborhoods, created landslides and cut power to thousands. CNN's Allison Chinchar details how some areas were impacted.

Posted: Oct 14, 2019 10:10 AM
Updated: Oct 14, 2019 10:10 AM

A major search and rescue operation is underway in Japan after deadly Typhoon Hagibis brought widespread flooding and landslides, destroying buildings and leaving dozens dead.

The storm -- which came as Japan hosts the Rugby World Cup for the first time -- made landfall on Saturday evening local time on the Izu Peninsula, southwest of Tokyo, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

At least 49 people were killed, with 200 injured and at least 14 people still missing, the country's public broadcaster NHK reported Monday. More than 110,000 personnel are involved in search and rescue operations, including 13,000 police, 66,000 fire department staff and 31,000 self-defense force staff, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a press conference Monday.

One of those killed was a 77-year-old woman who fell 40 meters (131 feet) during a helicopter rescue operation in Iwaki City, Fukushima prefecture, on Sunday morning, Tokyo Fire Department press officer Yuji Kikuchi said.

Rescuers had failed to properly attach a hook to the harness as the woman was being pulled onto the helicopter. "We apologize from the bottom of our heart," Hirofumi Shimizu, the deputy chief of Tokyo Fire Department, said in a press conference on Sunday. "We will try our best not to have this happen again and to recover trust to us."

More than 230,000 people were evacuated ahead of the storm, and emergency orders were issued for many cities around the greater Tokyo area. As of Monday, more than 84,000 households in Tokyo, northern Japan and mountainous areas in the center of the country were still without power, according to electricity companies.

Typhoon-hit regions are bracing for more rain on Monday which could exacerbate flooding, prompting authorities to caution people to stay away from rivers and mountain slopes.

Video released by authorities and shared online showed the extent of the devastation in Japan.

One clip shows a helicopter hovering over a house surrounded by murky water as rescuers pull a person to safety in Fukushima prefecture. Another shows people being rescued on an inflatable raft which appears to be floating on a water-logged street.

A separate clip taken on Sunday shows debris floating down a swollen river in Saku city, in Nagano prefecture.

Fukushima material

On Saturday, ten bags of soil from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster were found drifting in a river amid storm debris in Tamura city, about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Following a March 2011 earthquake, three reactors at the Fukushima plant melted down, releasing radioactive materials into the air and prompting more than 100,000 people to be evacuated from the area.

A total of 2,667 large, thick plastic bags containing contaminated materials from the disaster were being stored at a temporary storage site in Tamura while authorities looked for a more permanent location.

Each bag weighs upwards of several 100 kilograms (220 pounds) according to NHK.

On Saturday, local public works contractors found six of the bags drifting in a river. Another four were found by government officials.

On Monday, Fukushima prefecture decontamination spokesperson Akira Suzuki could not say whether more bags had washed away over the weekend.

"We are confirming how many are gone as well as searching for any other bags washed away," Suzuki said.

Shoji Watanabe, the head of nuclear disaster measurement office, said the radiation levels of the material in the bags had decreased over time. However, he refused to say that the bags were entirely safe.

He estimated that the radiation level from the material contained in each bag was between 0.3 to 1 microsievert per hour -- over the government standard of 0.23 microsievert per hour.

Japan has struggled to deal with how to store radioactive waste from the 2011 disaster. Earlier this year, the government said it was considering dumping contaminated water into the ocean as it was running out of storage space.

Fukushima prefecture disaster management spokesperson Shunji Miura said the typhoon had no significant impact on the nuclear plant.

Rugby World Cup

The typhoon comes as Japan hosts the Rugby World Cup for the first time. Three matches were canceled over the weekend, prompting criticism that the tournament appeared unprepared for the extreme weather, despite the event being held during typhoon season.

A pivotal Pool A match between Japan and Scotland did go ahead, with the host nation going on to secure a place in the quarterfinals for the first time. After a match between Canada and Namibia was canceled, Canadian rugby players helped with the recovery efforts in the coastal city of Kamaishi, prompting praise from the Rugby World Cup organizers.

Record rains and windstorms

Although typhoons are not uncommon in Japan, Typhoon Hagibis -- meaning speed in the Philippine language of Tagalog -- was particularly brutal. According to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office, the typhoon brought "record-setting heavy rains and windstorms."

Those led to widespread transport disruptions over the weekend, with flights, bullet trains and other transport canceled across Honshu, Japan's main island.

The storm weakened to a tropical depression Sunday. All bullet train lines were back in service as of Monday, except one service to Nagano -- about a third of its trains were submerged.

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