Pope Francis reaches out as death toll rises in Japan

JAPAN—Japan’s Prime Minister today visited some of the worst hit flood-stricken parts of the country as the death toll continued to rise amid health concerns for the displaced, scorching heat and the threat of new floods. Officials said at least 176 people have been killed and dozens are still missing.

It’s Japan’s worst weather disaster in 36 years. The death toll continues to spiral from torrential downpours, floods and landslides which struck parts of central and western regions almost a week ago, plus now some five million people have also been forced to evacuate and millions remain displaced.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who cancelled an overseas trip in order to deal with the disaster, observed damage from a helicopter flying over Okayama, one of the hardest-hit areas, on July 11, and then visited a crowded evacuation centre.

He told reporters the government would do everything it could to help the survivors.

With temperatures of 33 degrees Celsius or higher (91.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in some devastated areas, attention turned to preventing heat-stroke among rescue workers and in evacuation centres where thousands have sought shelter.

Officials turned to social media to warn of the additional danger of food-borne illnesses, urging people to wash their hands and take other measures against food poisoning, while water accumulating behind piles of debris blocking rivers also posed a danger after a swollen river rushed into a Fukuyama residential area this week prompting more evacuation orders.

The intensifying heat was expected to trigger thunderstorms on Wednesday, with authorities warning new landslides could be set off on mountainsides saturated with water.

Pope Francis has sent a message of condolences and expressed his “heartfelt solidarity” to those affected by the floods.

In a telegramme signed by Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin on the pope’s behalf, Pope Francis said he is “deeply saddened to learn of the loss of life and of the injury caused by the serious floods following the heavy rains in Japan”.

The pope also offered “encouragement to the civil authorities and all those involved in the search and rescue efforts as they assist the victims of this disaster” and upon all he invoked “abundant blessings”.

By Linda Bordoni / Vatican News

Photo, Vatican News: Residents look at debris scattered across a flood-hit area in Kurashiki, Japan.