TOKYO // Most of the quarter-million people forced to flee massive flooding in south-west Japan were able to return home today, but weather officials warned the danger had not fully passed from the record rainfall that left at least 26 people dead over the weekend.
Thousands of homes and hundreds of roads were damaged, and hundreds of landslides were reported. The military airlifted food by helicopter to stranded districts.
In Yame, a city of 69,000 in Fukuoka prefecture, 74 people in three separate areas were stranded by the flooding.
"Our region gets hit with heavy rain every year, but I have never experienced anything like this," city employee Kumi Takesue said.
"Rice paddies and roads all became water so you couldn't tell what was what," she said, adding that she had to wade in knee-high water, even near her home, which was not as hard hit as other areas.
Killed in Yame city were Katsutoshi Matsumoto, a 70-year-old who died when caught in a landslide while he was out looking at his rice paddies, and Shinobu Fueta, 83, whose home was buried in mud.
Weather officials warned people to be careful even in areas where rain had subsided, as land was still mushy and prone to landslides. Rain could start again later today, further endangering the area, they said.
Even as some of the water subsided, homes and farms on the southern island of Kyushu, hardest hit by the downpour, were still getting food shipments, although mostly by land, local officials said.
Kyodo News service said 26 people were dead and police were still searching for six missing people in the three prefectures of Kumamoto, Oita and Fukuoka. Nationwide tallies were not immediately available. The rain was concentrated in certain spots in a sprawling region of southern Japan, extending as far north as the ancient capital of Kyoto, where rainfall exceeded 90 millimeters per hour - a condition in which rain cascades down in such torrents that seeing ahead becomes impossible.
Evacuation orders were gradually being lifted, allowing most to return home by late Sunday.
Fukuoka Prefecture said that damage extended to more than 4,300 homes, 800 roads and 20 bridges. At least 518 landslides were recorded, it said. More than 2,700 people had evacuated their homes, it said in a statement.
Yoko Yoshika, wife of an award-winning Hagi-yaki style potter in Yamaguchi Prefecture, south-western Japan, said workers had scrambled to carry out a bucket relay with plastic pails to get rid of the water flowing into their shop.
"It was like a waterfall," she recalled. "It was horrible."