Tens of thousands of rescue workers in Japan on Monday combed through the wreckage of houses shattered by deadly floods and landslides in a desperate search for survivors as the death toll rose and more torrential rain loomed.

At least 37 people are feared dead after record rains lashed areas of western Japan in the early hours of Saturday, causing rivers to break banks and flooding low-lying regions.

Searches as dozens feared dead in Japan
Rescue workers are scrambling to get to isolated communities. Photo: JIJI PRESS / STR

"Rescue workers are tirelessly continuing the search this morning," a spokesman for the western Kumamoto prefecture told AFP, with at least 13 people still unaccounted for.

Although the rain has subsided from its peak levels, the floods washed away roads and bridges, leaving many in isolated communities cut off.

Searches as dozens dead in Japan
Helicopter was the only option for rescuing many of those cut off by the floodwaters. Photo: JIJI PRESS / STR

A local firefighter in the western region of Kagoshima told AFP they had deployed boats to rescue 11 people but that conditions were making it hard to reach some of the people stranded.

"Calls came from people telling us that they wanted to flee their home but they could not do it on their own," he said.

Searches as dozens feared dead in Japan
The floods washed away many bridges. Photo: JIJI PRESS / STR

"Some roads are submerged and you cannot drive through them."

In one of the hardest-hit areas, residents spelled the words "rice, water, SOS" on the ground, while others waved towels and called for rescue and relief goods.

Search for dozens dead in Japan
Dozens are feared dead in the floods and landslides that have hit parts of Japan. Photo: JIJI PRESS / STR

At a nursing home for the elderly, 14 people were feared dead when water from a nearby river inundated the ground floor, leaving those in wheelchairs unable to reach higher ground.

Emergency services, aided by locals in rafts, managed to rescue around 50 staff and residents from the facility, bringing them to safety by boat.

Search for dozens dead in Japan flood
Rescue and aid efforts are being hampered by fears of spreading the coronavirus. Photo: JIJI PRESS / STR

Heavy rain is expected to continue through Tuesday afternoon and the Japan Meteorological Agency issued a non-compulsory evacuation order for hundreds of thousands of residents in Kumamoto and neighbouring Kagoshima Prefecture.

Up to 250 millimetres of rain is expected in the 24-hour period through Tuesday morning in the southern part of Kyushu Island, which includes areas hit hard by the flooding, the agency said.

Japan floods and mudslides
Japan often experiences severe weather during its rainy season. Photo: AFP / Jonathan WALTER

"It's such a mess," resident Hirotoshi Nishi told public broadcaster NHK as he swept debris from his mud-strewn front room. "Many pieces of wood came into my house. I don't know what to do."

Hirokazu Kosaki, a 75-year-old bus driver in the town of Ashikita, told Jiji press: "It was nothing but water as far as I could see."

Evacuation efforts are being hampered by fears of spreading the coronavirus that has claimed almost 1,000 victims in Japan, with close to 20,000 cases.

Partitions have been set up at evacuation centres to keep distance between families and evacuees are made to wash their hands frequently, sanitise and wear face masks.

Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters that 19 people had been confirmed dead from the floods while a further 18 were in a state of "cardio-respiratory arrest" -- a term often used in Japan before a doctor officially certifies death.

He said more than 40,000 personnel from police and fire departments, the coast guard and Self-Defense troops were conducting search and rescue operations throughout the night.

Around 800 people had been rescued, Suga said, adding that 4,600 households were still without power and 7,000 without water.

Japan is currently in the middle of its annual rainy season which frequently delivers deadly floods and landslides.

Climate change is also playing a role because a warmer atmosphere holds more water, increasing the risk and intensity of flooding from extreme rainfall.

In 2018, more than 200 people died in devastating floods in the same region of Japan.

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