JOSO, Japan >> Happiness is relative — floods may destroy your family’s livelihood and fill your house with mud, but at least it’s standing and you’re alive.
"It’s still here!" said 34-year-old Chie Takahashi, one of the first residents to return to her heavily damaged neighborhood Friday, a day after a swollen river poured into the Japanese city of Joso. "I was afraid the house might have been washed away, because this area looked totally wiped out when I saw it on TV last night."
The devastated Misaka neighborhood is one of the worst-hit sections of Joso, a city of 60,000 people about 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of Tokyo. Houses were tilted and half submerged, concrete walls torn down, and a road ruptured. A row of utility poles leaned at an angle, and traffic signals lay collapsed on the ground.
Two days of torrential rain caused flooding and landslides across much of Japan this week. The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said three people died — a woman in her 60s found after a landslide hit houses in Kanuma city, a woman in her 40s in a car that washed away in Kurihara city, and a man in his 20s who fell into a drainage ditch in Nikko city.
Another river overflowed Friday morning into the city of Osaki, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) north of Joso, swamping homes and fields and stranding at least 60 people, according to media reports.
But the hardest-hit place appeared to be Joso, where the fast-rising waters led to a series of dramatic rescues by helicopters on Thursday.
As the sun returned Friday and the floodwaters subsided, some Misaka residents came back to find serious scars.
Wearing rain boots, Takahashi set her foot into a thick layer of slippery mud and slowly approached the front door. Inside, she found more mud on the floor and furniture.
She and her husband lost their kebab restaurant down the road. "I already checked it out before coming here, but it was destroyed," she said with a twinge of sadness, looking at the ground. "But we all survived, so I’m happy."
There was no electricity or water supply in the neighborhood, but a power shovel was already clearing chunks of asphalt, broken pieces of concrete and other debris at the end of the ruptured road. Anything above water was thickly coated with mud.
A block away, Kimii Masuyama, 69, shoveled out mud from the front yard with her 43-year- old son Tetsuo, both soaked with sweat in the scorching sun.
They had rushed back from a relative’s home where they had taken refuge with her husband, because they had left her two cats upstairs.
"I’m so happy to be back and see my kitties," she said. As she called their names, one of them came to the window and responded with a meow.
Elsewhere in Joso, farmers cleared the mess in their fields and assessed the damage to flattened soybean plants and other crops.
"We survived but it looks like some of our soybeans and rice didn’t," said Keiko Iita, 70, who spent the night with her husband and son on the second floor of their house.
City officials said 22 people remained missing after they had lost contact with them following requests for rescue. Three others were injured, one seriously. More than 3,500 people were staying in schools, community centers and other buildings converted to evacuation centers.
Hisako Sekimoto, 62, spent a sleepless night on the second floor of her flooded house with her husband and three cats before they were rescued by a military helicopter early Friday. Minutes after the flood gushed into the house Thursday afternoon, all of their furniture was floating and the water was up to her neck.
"There was no time to escape, all we could do was go upstairs. It was horrifying," she said. "I kept praying the water wouldn’t come upstairs."
The evacuees arrived at an athletic field in the city, carrying a few clothes and food in shopping bags, some of them without shoes.
Reiko Yamaji, 75, was stranded at a supermarket with dozens of other shoppers while she and her daughter-in-law Tomoko, 41, were buying rain boots. Part of the first floor was submerged.
"We spent the night in the car parked in the rooftop parking lot. Water was cut and toilets were out of service, but I’m so glad we all survived," Yamaji said, turning a bit teary. Her son, who was elsewhere in the city, was rescued by a boat.
Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo contributed to this report.