By Agence France-Presse
Kaon Omori peeked into her classroom in the Japanese town of Kurashiki, gawping at evacuees forced from their homes by devastating flooding and landslides that have killed 179 people.
“In the classroom, all the desks and chairs have been moved to the sides, and people I’ve never seen before are staying inside,” she mumbled.
“It’s really weird,” the 12-year-old said, touching her bobbed hair.
Authorities ordered as many as five million people to evacuate their homes during the record rains that have cut a swath through parts of central and western Japan.
And nearly a week after the rains began, with clean-up operations well under way, more than 10,000 are still stuck in shelters like the Okada elementary school in Kurashiki.
Among the hundreds of people at the school were former and current students, like Omori, a skinny sixth grader with a passion for volleyball.
She looked bemused at the transformation of her school, its gym now hosting neat rows of blue mats for displaced people to sleep on.
Japanese students change into indoor shoes when they enter their school buildings, but her designated shoe box was now stuffed with rolled-up clothing, intended for some of the hundreds of evacuees staying at the school.
Around noon, clutching her mobile tablet, she joined her friends in line for a bowl of cold noodles and two rice balls for lunch.
Despite the unusual circumstances, the school remained quiet and orderly, with its new residents removing their shoes before entering their temporary home.
Families got together to designate people to stay at the school and look after their children so the adults could get back to their flood-damaged homes and begin the clean-up work.
In the school yard, dozens of vehicles were parked, and aid workers streamed in continuously carrying donations.
Military vehicles delivered water, and medics pushed in wheelchairs for old people lying on the floor of the gym, classrooms or the nurse’s office.
Okada school and its 222 students would ordinarily still have been in session, with the summer holiday not scheduled until July 19.
But the under the circumstances, principal Takashi Kano said it would be closed at least until the end of the holidays in late August.
“Nothing is decided beyond that,” he told AFP.
The school’s students and its 24 teachers and staff were all safe, he said, but many found their homes badly damaged by flood water that submerged the entire ground floor.
“Ordinarily, our goal at Okada Elementary is to raise the academic performance of our students, and educate them to be the types of people loved by the community,” Kano said.
“But this is not the time. All our efforts now are being devoted to caring for the people who are here.”
Dreaming of a hot meal
Despite the modest conditions, evacuees said they were simply grateful to be safe and have a place to shelter.
Pressed, some acknowledged they would like a hot meal, and perhaps a designated place for women and girls to change.
“There is no place to hide, really, except for places like bathrooms. It’s hard on girls,” said Hiroko Fukuda, 40, mother of an Okada Elementary student.
Her 11-year-old daughter stayed at the shelter for a few days but eventually started refusing food and is now staying with her cousins.
“But we can’t complain,” Fukuda said. “All of this helps.”
For Yusuke Yoshida, sheltering at the school was a chance to revisit childhood memories.
“This is the first time I’ve been back in 30 years,” the 43-year-old said, lying on the gym floor.
He had spent the last two days working to clear the flood-hit home he shares with his parents and a brother.
The ground floor was completely submerged by flood water by Saturday morning, and the family survived by moving to the second floor until Sunday morning, when they were rescued by troops on a boat.
“I am happy to receive rice balls. There is no way we would complain,” he said.
“But the other day, volunteers came and prepared fried noodles. Oh, the taste of a freshly cooked, warm meal. That was amazing.”