Japan quake toll nears 50 as rescuers battle to find survivors

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At least 48 people were killed after a powerful earthquake hit Japan on New Year’s Day, with rescue teams struggling on Tuesday to reach isolated areas where buildings had been toppled, roads wrecked and power cut to tens of thousands of homes.

The quake with a preliminary magnitude of 7.6 struck on Monday afternoon, prompting residents in some coastal areas to flee to higher ground as tsunami waves hit Japan’s west coast, sweeping some cars and houses into the sea.

A 3,000-strong rescue crew of army personnel, firefighters and police officers from across the country have been sent to the quake site on the Noto peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture.

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“The search and rescue of those impacted by the quake is a battle against time,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said during an emergency meeting on Tuesday, donning a blue outfit commonly worn by officials during disaster relief operations.

Kishida said rescuers were finding it very difficult to access the northern tip of the Noto peninsula where helicopter surveys had discovered many fires and widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure. There are around 120 cases of people awaiting rescue, his government spokesperson later said.

Many rail services and flights into the area have been suspended. Noto’s airport closed due to damage to its runway, terminal and access roads, with 500 people stranded inside vehicles in its parking lot, public broadcaster NHK reported.

In Suzu, a coastal town of just over 5,000 households near the quake’s epicenter, there may have been up to 1,000 houses destroyed, according to its mayor Masuhiro Izumiya.

This aerial photo provided by Jiji Press shows smoke rising from an area following a large fire in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture on January 2, 2024, a day after a major 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture. (AFP)
This aerial photo provided by Jiji Press shows smoke rising from an area following a large fire in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture on January 2, 2024, a day after a major 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture. (AFP)


“The situation is catastrophic,” he said.

Authorities have confirmed 48 deaths so far, all in Ishikawa prefecture, NHK reported. Many of those are in Wajima, another hard-hit city on the remote northern tip of the Noto peninsula.

Scores more have been injured and authorities were battling blazes in several cities on Tuesday and hauling people from collapsed buildings.

“I’ve never experienced a quake that powerful,” said Wajima resident Shoichi Kobayashi, 71, who was at home having a celebratory New Year’s dinner with his wife and son when the quake struck.

“Even the aftershocks made it difficult to stand up straight,” he said, adding his family slept in their car for fear of returning to the shaken home.

More than 140 tremors have been detected since the quake first hit on Monday, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency, which warned more strong shocks could hit in the coming days.

Wrecked homes

Nobuko Sugimori, a 74-year-old resident of Nanao city in Ishikawa, told Reuters she had never experienced such a quake before.

“I tried to hold the TV set to keep it from toppling over, but I could not even keep myself from swaying violently,” Sugimori said from her home which had a large crack down its front wall and furniture scattered around the inside.

This aerial photo provided by Jiji Press shows damage in the city of Suzu, Ishikawa prefecture on January 2, 2024, a day after a major 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture. (AFP)
This aerial photo provided by Jiji Press shows damage in the city of Suzu, Ishikawa prefecture on January 2, 2024, a day after a major 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture. (AFP)


Across the street, a car was crushed under a collapsed building where residents had another close call.

Fujiko Ueno, 73, said nearly 20 people were in her house for a New Year celebration when the quake struck but miraculously all emerged uninjured.

“It all happened in the blink of an eye” she said, standing in the street amid debris from the wreckage and mud that oozed out of the road’s cracked surface.

Several world leaders sent condolence messages with President Joe Biden saying in a statement the United States was
ready to provide any necessary help to Japan.

The Japanese government ordered around 100,000 people to evacuate their homes on Monday night, sending them to sports halls and school gymnasiums, commonly used as evacuation centers in emergencies.

Almost half of those evacuated had returned to their homes on Tuesday after authorities lifted tsunami warnings.

But around 33,000 households remained without power in Ishikawa prefecture on Tuesday after a night when temperatures dropped below freezing, according to Hokuriku Electric Power’s website. Nearly 20,000 homes have no water supply.

The Imperial Household Agency said it would cancel Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako’s slated New Year appearance on Tuesday following the disaster. Kishida postponed his New Year visit to the Ise Shrine scheduled for Thursday.

Japan’s defense minister told reporters on Tuesday that 1,000 army personnel are currently involved in rescue efforts and that 10,000 could eventually be deployed.

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Nuclear plants

The quake also comes at a sensitive time for Japan’s nuclear industry, which has faced fierce opposition from some locals since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Whole towns were devastated in that disaster and nearly 20,000 people perished.

Japan last week lifted an operational ban imposed on the world’s biggest nuclear plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, which has been offline since the 2011 tsunami.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority said no irregularities were found at nuclear plants along the Sea of Japan, including five active reactors at Kansai Electric Power’s Ohi and Takahama plants in Fukui Prefecture.

Hokuriku Electric’s Shika plant, the closest to the epicenter, has also been idled since 2011. The company said there had been some power outages and oil leaks following Monday’s jolt but no radiation leakage.

The company had previously said it hoped to restart the reactor in 2026.

Chip equipment maker Kokusai Electric said it is investigating further after finding some damage at its factory in Toyama ahead of the planned resumption of operations on Thursday.

Companies including Sharp, Komatsu and Toshiba have been checking whether their factories in the area have been damaged.

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