AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The devastating rains that hit central and western Japan last week have ended, but the risk of landslides and flooding persists. More than 170 people have died, many of them swept away by the floods. Meantime, rescue workers are digging through debris, looking for survivors. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe traveled to the affected region today. He visited an evacuation center set up inside an elementary school. And he promised people who had taken shelter that the government would do its utmost to help in their recovery.
Austin Ramzy of The New York Times was in western Japan covering this natural disaster. I asked him to describe what he saw.
AUSTIN RAMZY: Parts of the affected areas are very badly hit. We were in Okayama Prefecture in a place called Kurashiki City. In parts of that city, a river broke its banks. And water flowed in up to 15 feet high in some places, up to the second floor of two-story houses. Streets are filled with mud and sand and cars that have washed on their sides, and one road was blocked by a roof that had washed off of a house. And there's still quite a lot of standing water.
CHANG: How has the government responded so far? I mean, has it been able to get relief supplies efficiently into the region?
RAMZY: Yes. When we were there, I mean, you could tell where the affected areas were just by the number of rescue helicopters circling around. And as we walked through this devastated district, there were large groups of troops walking around, checking on houses, making sure people were OK. And because the area of destruction is sort of fragmented, it means that parts of - large parts of cities are operating as normal, which will help in the recovery efforts. It means that there's functioning hospitals that people can go to and places where people who have lost their houses can go to stay.
CHANG: I'm sure a lot of people obviously remember the earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Are people making comparisons between that and what's happening now?
RAMZY: It influenced this in an interesting way. And I think that, particularly in this area, it's not known for natural disasters. They - they're sort of protected from typhoons. And in fact, some people moved to this area after the 2011 earthquake feeling that it was a safer part of the country. Japan is very well-prepared for earthquakes. Floods are a less common problem. And so people in this city told us they chose not to evacuate and wish they'd take the warnings more seriously.
CHANG: When do you think people might be able to go back home?
RAMZY: The flooded neighborhood we saw, people there told us that they might not ever be able to go back home, that their houses were damaged, you know, beyond repair and that they didn't necessarily want to move back into that neighborhood, considering the risk that they had been under during the flood. So those people said to us they just have to find a new place to live. So I think it's, you know, how fast they can clear out of what they have left and find new places to live.
CHANG: New York Times reporter Austin Ramzy. Thank you very much.
RAMZY: Thank you, Ailsa.
(SOUNDBITE OF VASUDEVA'S "TURNSTILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.