Powerful monsoon rains swept across South Korea, burying homes, toppling trees, canceling flights and trains, and cutting power to thousands of residents, officials said Saturday.
The heavy rain caused floods and landslides in the central region of the country, leaving at least 22 people dead and 14 others missing on Saturday evening, the Ministry of Internal Affairs saidadding that the rainfall was expected to intensify in the coming days.
Heavy monsoon rains are typical in South Korea in the summer, and its mountainous topography makes it susceptible to landslides. But the number of casualties reported on Saturday was unusual.
“The death toll is surprisingly high,” Cheong Tae Sung, a flood expert at South Korea’s National Disaster Management Research Institute, said in an interview, adding that there are a number of possible reasons for this.
One is that in recent years rainfall has tended to be concentrated in urban areas, near the big cities of Busan and Seoul. This time, much of the recent rain fell in rural parts of Chungcheong and Jeolla Provinces, which may be more vulnerable in part because they are harder to control and reach.
Mr. Cheong added that, as climate change warms South Korea, rain also seems to come in more intense bursts, rather than slowly over a longer period. That change made it difficult to prepare for floods.
Among those killed on Friday and Saturday, five people died inside homes and buildings collapsed by landslides, and one person was buried in earth and sand, the Interior Ministry. said in a statement. Another victim died after a road collapsed underneath.
Several dams in the central part of the country began the controlled release of water on Saturday, and one overflowed, prompting the evacuation of thousands of residents living downstream. A passenger train derailed on Friday night when soil entered a railway track, although no casualties were reported.
More than 4,700 residents have evacuated their homes since Thursday, according to the ministry’s statement, which urged emergency workers to help evacuate residents and conduct rescues.
The Korea Meteorological Administration said on Saturday that the rain will intensify over the next two days, mainly in the central and southwestern parts of the country.
The South Korean government has been vigilant this month, with top officials stressing the importance of security during the monsoon season. That sense of urgency intensified over the weekend as reports of deaths and injuries began to come in.
“If there is even a small possibility of danger, overreaction is the principle of this heavy rain response,” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said on Saturday, mobilizing the military to join rescue efforts. President Yoon Suk Yeol reiterated his demands for a “total response” from the government.
Parts of central South Korea were under a heavy rain advisory Saturday morning, with up to 1.6 inches expected in a single hour in some areas later in the day, the ministry said. Some regions should expect up to nearly 10 inches of precipitation to accumulate, it added.
South Korea’s monsoon season typically begins in June and ends in early August. The rest of the year is mostly dry and sunny, and spring brings the risk of forest fires.
The country used to experience severe losses and in 1984 accepted humanitarian aid from North Korea. More recently, annual flood-related deaths have been in the single digits, except in 2011, 2020 and 2022.
In August, some of the heaviest rains in decades caused deaths of at least 14 people nationwide In 2020, weeks of intermittent rain caused floods and landslides across the country, killing 48 people. In 2011, more than 70 people died, including 17 who were killed when landslides crashed into residential buildings in southern Seoul.