TOKYO — Rescuers and search parties scoured central Japan on Monday as the death toll from the worst typhoon to hit the country in seven years climbed to 34, adding more misery to a nation still reeling from its catastrophic tsunami six months ago.
Typhoon Talas, which was later downgraded to a tropical storm, lashed coastal areas with destructive winds and record-setting rains over the weekend before moving offshore into the Sea of Japan. In addition to the 34 dead and 55 missing, thousands were stranded as the typhoon washed out bridges, railways and roads. Tens of thousands of households were still out of electricity and land telephone lines remained disrupted Monday night.
The scenes of destruction from the typhoon were another unwelcome reminder of Japan's vulnerability to the forces of nature as the country tries to recover from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Quick response pledged
In one of his first acts in office, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda — sworn in just one day before the storm made landfall — vowed the government would provide as much assistance as quickly as it could.
His predecessor, Naoto Kan, was forced out in large part because of public anger over the response to the tsunami, which left nearly 21,000 people dead or missing and touched off the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
"We will do everything we can to rescue people and search for the missing," Noda said.
The typhoon was believed to be the worst to hit Japan since 2004, when 98 people were killed or reported missing. It caused most of its damage on the Kii Peninsula in central Japan southwest of Tokyo and hundreds of miles from the country's tsunami-ravaged northeastern coast.
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Hunting for survivors
The extent of damage from the typhoon was still emerging Monday.
Rescuers and reconnaissance teams spread out over the worst-hit areas to look for survivors or people stranded in flood zones, which though far smaller in scale were reminiscent of the debris-ridden, mud-caked wasteland created by the tsunami.
Television footage showed washed-out train bridges, whole neighborhoods inundated by swollen rivers and police using rope to pull frightened survivors out of homes awash in the murky waters.
The government's emergency headquarters put the death toll at 26 as of Monday morning. Evacuation advisories remained in place for about 100,000 people, although the storm itself was no longer over land.
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Most of the dead were in Wakayama prefecture (state), said local official Seiji Yamamoto. He said 17 were killed there and another 28 missing.
"There are so many roads out that it is hard to count them all," he said. "Hundreds of homes have been flooded."
Hundreds of thousands issued evacuation orders
Rains and wind were recorded across wide swaths of Japan's main island, but no significant damage was reported in the tsunami-ravaged northeast.
As the typhoon approached, evacuation orders or advisories were issued to 460,000 people. At least 3,600 people were still stranded by flooded rivers, landslides and collapsed bridges that were hampering rescue efforts, Kyodo News agency reported.
The center of the season's 12th typhoon crossed the southern island of Shikoku and the central part of the main island of Honshu overnight Saturday.
Talas has mostly moved at about 6 mph, roughly the speed of a bicycle, and its slow progress caused heavy and prolonged rainfall over Japan, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.
Talas is a word from the Philippines that means "sharpness."
Reuters contributed to this report from The Associated Press.