Typhoon Phanfone Sparks Japan Mudslide Fears


Typhoon Phanfone, Japan’s 18th typhoon so far this year, left the main island of Honshu early Monday afternoon, after making landfall early that morning near Hamamatsu City. The storm had been traveling up the Japanese island chain since early Sunday morning, inundating the islands of Okinawa, Kyushu and Shikoku with near record levels of rain and winds up to 144 km/hour. While Japan has averaged more than 11 typhoons per year between 1980 and 2011, this year’s typhoons have been particularly destructive.

Typhoon Neoguri in early July was one of the biggest seen in recent decades for southern and western Japan. That “super typhoon” had sustained winds of 198 km/hour, dropped 80 millimeters of rain on Okinawa Island, and threatened large mudslides around Kyushu that had already seen substantial rain in the days before it approached. While Japan’s major utility companies struggled to stay online during Neoguri, when summer demand was at its peak, they were better prepared for Monday’s storm, with Kyushu Electric Power Co reporting just 18,500 households without power on Sunday.

Neoguri’s first casualties were on Okinawa, where three U.S. airmen were swept out to sea on Sunday while trying to photograph the rough waves. Only one of the airmen’s bodies have been recovered so far, with the other two still reported missing by the U.S. Air Force. In addition, Japanese oil refiner Nansei Sekiyu suspended operations at its 100,000 barrels-per-day refinery in Okinawa on Sunday.

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Elsewhere, the economic costs of the storm mounted. Toyota Motor Corp halted production at 12 of its plants on Monday, while Honda did the same at two plants in Suzuka and Hamamatsucho and Nissan closed its Oppama plant. More than 600 domestic and international flights were cancelled, and even the high-speed shinkansen rail service was briefly suspended. Commuter rail in Tokyo was meanwhile delayed for hours, affecting millions of the capital’s commuters.

Aside from the economic costs, the ongoing rescue and recovery efforts on Mount Ontake, which erupted on September 27 and has already claimed 51 lives, was suspended on Sunday. Authorities in charge say that the heavy rain has forced them to stop their search for the 12 remaining victims believed to still be somewhere near the summit. Additionally, the nearby towns of Otaki and Kiso have been put on high alert for fear of mudslides from the large amounts of ash that were ejected from Ontake being inundated by rain from the typhoon. The eruption’s 51 casualties made it Japan’s deadliest in almost 90 years, and the government is anxious not to see that number rise due to the storm.

The disaster on Ontake follows the tragedy that struck Hiroshima this summer, when record rainfall flooded the city. A subsequent mudslide claimed over 70 lives as more than 400 homes were quickly engulfed in the early morning hours of August 20th.

So far 300,000 people have been reportedly advised to evacuate their homes across Japan due to this latest typhoon, with at least 20,000 in Tokyo alone. The Minato Ward of the capital is particularly susceptible to mudslides, with 118 slopes declared to be at risk by the government. The city subsequently advised the ward’s 23,000 households to evacuate to nearby schools designated as disaster shelters (although The Japan Times reports that 70 minutes after the warning, only one household had heeded the advice).

Phanfone was one of this seasons largest typhoons,  reaching a category four on Tropical Storm Risk’s scale (five being the largest) as it approached the Tokyo area. As October is still a prime month for typhoons in Japan, the national and local governments will be on alert for further storms, especially those that threated sensitive areas that have already been hit by natural disasters like Mount Ontake, and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. While TEPCO officials say they were adequately prepared at the stricken plant for this most recent storm, the ongoing cleanup efforts have faced serious setbacks that would only be exacerbated by a direct hit from one of this season’s many powerful typhoons.

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