October 16, 2019 / 10:13 AM / 2 months ago

Japanese flood disaster frays resilience of elderly victims

DATE, Japan (Reuters) - When a river in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture overflowed on Sunday at the height of Typhoon Hagibis, 700 homes were flooded, many belonging to elderly residents too frail to clean up and repair their water-logged houses.

A man cleans debris in the aftermath of Typhoon Hagibis in Yanagawamachi district, Date City, Fukushima prefecture, Japan October 16, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Fukushima is no stranger to disaster. In 2011, the area was struck by an earthquake that unleashed a tsunami on the coast and destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

But as Japan’s population ages, the resilience of residents to deal with hardship in the disaster-prone country appears to be eroding.

“Elderly people have told me that they are ready to give up,” said Kenichi Bamba, the head of Bridge for Fukushima, a volunteer group that had come to help with the clean-up.

“As Japan grows older, social networks that support communities will begin to break down. Something needs to be put in its place,” he said.

Hiromi Nagasawa, a social welfare official in Date city in Fukushima prefecture, near where the Abukuma river burst its banks, said nearly all of the 170 people left in evacuation centres were old.

The death toll from Typhoon Hagibis rose to 74 on Wednesday, public broadcaster NHK said, many of the victims having drowned after scores of rivers were inundated.

(Click tmsnrt.rs/31c0feP to see an interactive graphic plotting the path of Typhoon Hagibis)

Fukushima prefecture has seen the highest number of casualties, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged 710 million yen ($6.5 million) to help fund recovery efforts.

‘DON’T KNOW HOW I’M GOING TO COPE’

Bamba’s group and city officials are recruiting volunteers to help the elderly clear mud and debris from their homes.

Ten high school students working with Bamba’s group helped 78-year-old Iseno Taniguchi and her daughter, Yumi Okazaki, tidy up three days after her house in Date city was nearly submerged, with floodwaters reaching as high as the second floor.

Wearing masks to guard against dust blowing up from drying mud, the volunteers carried out bags of sodden rubbish to growing piles of debris along the town’s narrow streets.

Some pulled photographs from water-logged albums to dry in the sun.

“I want to help clean up so she can at least save some things,” said student Raina Sato, as she wiped Taniguchi’s family photos.

“The streets are filled with mud and it must be hard for the elderly to get around.”

Taniguchi, who lives alone and has been staying with her daughter since the flood, appeared to be losing hope.

“I just don’t know how I am going to cope,” said Taniguchi in her ruined living room. “When I evacuated, all I took was my mobile phone, driving licence, car and purse. Everything I have has been destroyed.”

Taniguchi doesn’t think her house can be salvaged, and said she will likely knock it down, and may even move out of the area.

Slideshow (11 Images)

As many as 300 households in the neighbourhood would need help from volunteers over coming weeks, says Bamba.

“It will take 10 people about three days to clean each house,” he said.

But with Typhoon Hagibis aftermath stretching responders in other parts of Japan, including Tokyo, volunteers able to help in Fukushima may be in short supply, he said.

Reporting by Tim Kelly; Additional reporting by Kwiyeon Ha; Editing by Karishma Singh

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