TOKYO – The mayor of a Japanese island devastated by a deadly typhoon apologized Thursday for failing to issue an evacuation order, as rescue workers combed through mountains of debris searching for the missing.
At least 19 deaths have been confirmed from Typhoon Wipha, one day after it swept up Japan's east coast, and about 40 people remained missing, government officials said. Most of the victims were on the island of Izu Oshima, about 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 must apologize," Mayor Masafumi Kawashima said at a news conference. "It's my deepest regret and I will not forget this."
Some 1,100 rescuers were searching through huge piles of trees and destroyed homes swept downhill by mudslides, shouting in hopes of finding survivors. The search was hampered by the slippery mud.
Town officials issued repeated warnings of river flooding early Wednesday morning, during the worst of the torrential downpour, but stopped short of ordering any areas evacuated.
Initially, Kawashima defended the decision, saying Wednesday night he had feared a middle-of-the-night evacuation under such harsh conditions could have done more damage than good.
Katsunobu Kato, a central government spokesman, told reporters that his understanding is that proper warnings were issued regarding forecasts for torrential rains.
The areas affected by the mudslides were indicated as hazardous zones on maps, he said, adding that the government was checking to see if there was any factual basis for complaints that an evacuation order should have been issued.
The damage was almost exclusively concentrated in the town of Motomachi on the northwest corner of the island, which sits on slightly steeper ground.
"That caught us by surprise," said a town official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue. He added that the Motomachi area survived past record-level storms. "So we hardly had any sense of crisis."
The island's mayor was also under fire for being away during the crisis. He had to be airlifted home by a military helicopter from another island he was visiting for work, returning more than half a day later.
More than 350 homes were damaged or destroyed, including 283 on Izu Oshima, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said. Residents and shop owners cleaned out the mud from their buildings.
Izu Oshima is the largest island in the Izu chain. It has one of Japan's most active volcanoes, Mount Mihara, and is a major base for growing camellias. About 8,200 people live on the island, which is accessible by ferry from Tokyo.
Associated Press writer Elaine Kurtenbach contributed to this report.