Letters forming SOS are seen on the grounds of a former elementary school where people were stranded near the Kumagawa river in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture, on July 5. (The Asahi Shimbun)

More bad news is in the forecast for Kumamoto Prefecture where heavy downpours are expected to continue on July 5, following flooding after a major river overflowed its banks and inundated communities, claiming 18 lives. 

According to a Japan Meteorological Agency forecast, the seasonal rain front that brought intense showers in the prefecture will bring more torrential rain in many parts of Kyushu and its surroundings into the early hours of July 6.

About 200 millimeters of rain is expected in southern Kyushu over the 24 hours through 6 a.m. on July 6. The rainfall may total 150 mm in the Tokai region and 100 mm in the northern part of the Kyushu, Shikoku and Kinki regions.

Local authorities are warning against more flooding of rivers and mudslides as torrential rainfall loosens the ground.

As of July 5, 18 people--nine in Hitoyoshi, eight in Ashikita and one in Tsunagi--had died and 14 people were missing in Hitoyoshi, Ashikita, Tsunagi and Nishiki, according to the Kumamoto prefectural government.

Residents in 30 communities were left stranded without outside assistance.

The natural disaster is striking as the country is coping with the new coronavirus outbreak, which is adding to the difficulty of local officials to secure safe shelter for residents.

Avoiding crowds in a confined space with poor ventilation is the overriding priority during the COVID-19 health crisis.

In the city of Amakusa in the prefecture, 18 evacuees of seven households took refuge at some of the 29 makeshift evacuation centers that opened as of the evening of July 4.

Last month, city officials announced guidelines for evacuation centers in connection with the health crisis.

On July 4, Amakusa officials at evacuation centers were busy ensuring that residents wore masks, taking their temperatures, ventilating the venues and reducing the number of evacuees to half the normal capacity as a precaution.

When people infected with the virus take refuge there, they are expected to be quarantined within the venue, according to the guidelines.

“We scrambled to open evacuation centers in the middle of the night following the heavy rains,” said an official. “But we don’t know if we can respond by adhering to our guidelines when virus carriers and people with symptoms come.”

In Kagoshima, the city government issued a recommendation for evacuation and prepared for evacuees by making available 102 makeshift shelters on July 4.

But only 58 people from 34 households evacuated.

City officials said they are concerned that residents may opt out of evacuating due to risks of contracting the virus from the crowds at shelters despite the dangers they face from flooding.