The mayor of Izu Oshima Island, one of the hardest hit by record Typhoon Wipha, apologized and admitted on Thursday that an order to evacuate residents could have saved more lives. 19 are already confirmed dead with 50 more missing or unaccounted for from the devastating mudslides that the typhoon caused. Rescue workers continue to comb through mountains of debris searching for the missing on the island around 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Tokyo.
“There is concern that perhaps more lives could have been saved if there had been an evacuation. We have concluded this and I must apologize,” Mayor Masafumi Kawashima said at a news conference. “It’s my deepest regret and I will not forget this.” Town officials had issued repeated warnings of river flooding early Wednesday morning, as the island experienced the worst of the torrential downpour, but they stopped short of ordering any evacuation. Initially, Kawashima had chosen to defend the decision, saying on Wednesday night he had feared a middle-of-the-night evacuation under such extreme conditions could have done more damage than good. Kawashima also came under criticism for being away during the crisis. The Oshima mayor had to be airlifted home by a military helicopter from another island he was visiting for work, returning more than half a day after the crisis.
Currently, around 1,100 rescuers are still working their way through huge piles of trees and destroyed homes swept downhill by mudslides, shouting in hopes of finding survivors. The search and rescue effort is considerably being hampered by the slippery mud. According to Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency, over 350 homes were damaged or destroyed, with the majority on Izu Oshima. Izu Oshima is the largest island in the Izu chain, with around 8,200 residents.