KAWAGOE, Japan — One by one, the boats arrived, having crossed a lake that did not exist the day before. They carried precious cargo: old-age patients rescued from a flooded nursing home in an exurb of Tokyo.
As Typhoon Hagibis slammed into Japan on Saturday, record levels of rain pummeled vast swaths of the country, pushing 77 rivers beyond their limits and killing 30 people. In a country that prides itself on robust infrastructure and preparedness in the face of frequent natural disasters, the onslaught was a humbling reminder of the vulnerabilities that allowed even major urban centers to suffer severe damage.
Dramatic rescues played out across several trouble spots Sunday as Japan confronted the destruction wrought by the storm, with residents pulled off roofs by helicopters or rowed out of the floodwaters in boats.
In Kawagoe, a city of about 350,000 built along the Oppegawa River in Saitama Prefecture, the river breached its banks Saturday, flooding some neighborhoods. Inside the Kings Garden nursing home, the waters rose through the night, leaving more than 120 residents in need of rescue.
Dozens of local firefighters, prefectural police and national self-defense force troops were dispatched Sunday to the area. They loaded the residents, most in their 80s and 90s and many suffering from dementia, into rubber dinghies and small motorized boats.
The labor-intensive operation took most of the day as each resident rode accompanied by four emergency workers per boat. When they reached dry land, rescuers hoisted the patients onto their backs to ferry them the last few feet to safety. In a staging area, volunteers lined residents up in wheelchairs and covered them in blankets and offered bottles of tea.
With levees failing around the country, residents sought help escaping from massive flooding in multiple regions, including some highly urban areas. Much of Nagano City, a large prefectural capital — and host of the 1998 Winter Olympics — was submerged under muddy water after a levee burst on the Chikuma River. A hospital flooded in Setagaya, a wealthy ward of Tokyo.
In Kawasaki, an industrial city between Tokyo and Yokohama where about 900,000 people had been advised to evacuate Saturday, many areas were left underwater. In Fukushima, which was hit by the nuclear meltdown that followed an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, households in several communities were isolated by floodwaters.
Volunteers rushed to help Sunday in Kawagoe, 30 miles from central Tokyo. “This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this,” said Kosuke Yanagawa, 34, a nurse from Saitama, who had come to help with the nursing home victims after seeing news footage of the rescue on television. “It’s surprising that this kind of flood would take place near a metropolitan area.”
Kimiko Oda, 87, said she could not sleep at all as the rain pounded the nursing home and the waters rose Saturday night, forcing residents to move to the second floor before rescuers arrived Sunday.
“It was scary because I didn’t know what was happening,” said Oda, as she rested in a wheelchair under a large reflective gold space blanket. The only other time she had been so scared, said Oda, who was born in 1932, was during World War II.
The total damage caused by Typhoon Hagibis will likely take days to tally, but by Sunday evening, NHK, the public broadcaster, said 30 people had died during the storm and 18 were still missing. Another 175 had been injured.
Some 27,000 rescue workers evacuated people from flood zones in multiple prefectures Sunday, including Fukushima, Kanagawa, Nagano, Saitama, and Tokyo.
In Kawagoe, firefighters and police in orange vests slowly motored small boats across flooded rice fields and through residential neighborhoods looking for people still trapped inside their homes. Some residents who had refused to evacuate decided they now wanted to be rescued, including a family with 11 cats and dogs that were carried out in travel cases on dinghies.
A good portion of the city, which hosts multiple light manufacturing and distribution companies, was unaffected. Residents rambled along the streets on foot or on bicycles. Even along the river, some neighborhoods had already dried under the hot sun that emerged after the storm passed and curiosity-seekers came to gawk at the flood zones.
In those areas, many residents were caught by surprise by the deluge. Yasuyuki Tamura, 52, a factory worker whose contract recently ended, thought he could ride out the storm in the home he has lived most of his life.
During previous typhoons, which lash Japan several times every year, rains had flooded the entryway to the two-story home that Tamura shared with his father until his death last year. But Saturday night, the waters just kept rising.
By 1 a.m., the water was going up by one step every hour. “I underestimated the storm and thought it would be all right,” said Tamura, as he sat in the corner of an elementary school gym where he had evacuated Sunday morning after being rescued from the second-floor veranda of his home.
He said he wasn’t sure when he could go home, given that the waters had not yet receded. The certificate for his insurance policy, he said, likely had washed away in the flooding. “I never expected the water to go that high that fast,” he said, pulling out his cellphone to show a photo taken at 4 a.m., with the waters halfway up the hallway walls on the first floor of the house.