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Torrential rainfall wreaks havoc in southern Japan: Floods and landslides leave tens of thousands without water and electricity

TOKYO - Torrential rain and landslides have killed some 80 people in southern Japan in the past two months, as the country experiences its coldest and wettest summer since the war, writes Terry McCarthy.

Two trains have been swept into the sea, houses have disappeared under tons of mud, and tens of thousands of people have been left without water and electricity in a series of disasters that seem incongruous in a country normally known for its safety and meticulous devotion to order.

But chaos rules around the city of Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu island, where most of the damage has occurred. Furniture floats down streets, a four-storey hospital has been demolished, cars half-submerged in sludge lie abandoned on impassable roads, and rescue teams continue the gruesome task of sorting through the wreckage of buildings in search of missing bodies. Last Friday alone 45 people died, and as rains continue the death-toll is still rising.

In a year when unusual climactic conditions have caused widespread flooding in the US Midwest, Nepal, India, and most recently Venezuela, Japan has also become a victim of what might appear to be a global meteorological conspiracy. Temperatures are an average 1-3 degrees below normal, and southern Japan has had four times the usual amount of rainfall for this time of year, causing lethal landslides in populated areas.

One of the first actions of the new government led by the Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, was to establish an emergency flood-relief centre headed by a cabinet minister to co-ordinate aid to the Kagoshima area, which yesterday was battered anew by a typhoon coming in from the Pacific Ocean. In the 24 hours from Monday to Tuesday morning 57 landslides were reported around Kyushu. Meteorologists in Tokyo say the unusually heavy rainfall has been caused by a disruption in the westerly winds that prevail in the northern hemisphere, which have been pushing cold Arctic air southwards over Japan. The same disruption contributed to the flooding in the mid-western US. At the same time, the recurrence of the phenomenon of El Nino, in which the sea temperature rises in the Pacific off South America, seems to be preventing high-pressure systems, with their accompanying warm weather, from working their way up to Japan.

According to Shigenori Sakai, of the Meterological Agency, Kagoshima received 10 times as much rain as St Louis in the last month. 'It is the worst rainfall since records started,' he said.

Kagoshima has a history of flood- related damage. It lies directly in the route of typhoons that sweep in from the Pacific every year. In addition, much of the surrounding area is hilly and made up of volcanic ash deposits, which are less stable than clay slopes. With limited space for house-building, many residences are perched on hillsides, and become death-traps when the landslides begin.

According to one eyewitness in Yoshinocho, north-east of Kagoshima city, a group of people were swept into the sea by a series of landslides but fishing boats were prevented from rescuing them by the debris and the high waves in the sea.

Noriaki Kikuura, a teacher who lives close to the sea in Kagoshima, was forced to flee his house last Friday when a mudslide began. He found he was trapped between two collapsing portions of the hillside.

Below him he saw some 300 people holding on to an embankment facing the sea. A third landslide began, washing some of the people into the sea. Though fishing boats arrived, they were only able to throw lifebuoys into the water.