A magnitude-7.3 earthquake struck Kumamoto Prefecture early Saturday, killing at least 22 people and bringing the total number of deaths since Thursday evening to 32.. After shocks continue till the day and people, scared of their lives, have been spending outside their houses and at open spaces.
Public broadcaster NHK said that at least 820 people were injured in the latest tremor, while a government spokesperson said scores were trapped or buried alive.
As reports came in of people trapped in collapsed buildings, fires and power outages, authorities warned of damage over a wide area.
The powerful shaking triggered a huge landslide that swept away homes and cut off a national highway in Minamiaso, and unlike the earlier quake which mostly affected old houses larger, on Saturday newer buildings were damaged and some were toppled across Kumamoto, the epicenter of the quakes. Local officials said Aso Ohashi bridge in the village had also collapsed.
Heavy rain forecast for the coming days could lead to more landslides and affect already damaged structures, the Meteorological Agency said.
The Kumamoto Prefectural Police said they have received reports of 97 cases of people trapped or buried under collapsed buildings.
The local government also said four apartment buildings near Tokai University’s Aso Campus in Kumamoto Prefecture collapsed and 11 people, including students of the university, are believed to be trapped under the wreckage.
Meanwhile, a large fire that broke out at an apartment complex in the city of Yatsushiro killed one person, Kiichiro Terada, a city official, confirmed.
“We are also checking if any more people failed to escape,” he said, adding that the fire was under control.
Residents living near a dam were told to leave because of fears it might crumble, NHK said.
Saturday’s temblor triggered a tsunami advisory, although it was later lifted and no irregularities were reported at three nuclear power plants in the area, a senior government official said.
People still reeling from Thursday’s shock poured onto the streets after the Saturday quake struck at 1:25 a.m. The strength of the 7.3-magnitude quake matches that of the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said nearly 80 people are believed trapped or buried in rubble. Extra troops would be sent to help, with up to 15,000 due Saturday, as well as more police, firefighters and medics, he said.
“We are making every effort to respond,” Suga said.
Troops fanned out to search ruined houses as dawn broke.
The epicenter of the quake was near the city of Kumamoto at a shallow depth of 10 km, the U.S. Geological Survey said. Almost 200,000 households were without power.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, arriving at his office in Tokyo, told reporters the government was making every effort to determine the extent of the damage, carry out rescue and recovery, and to get accurate information to citizens.
“It’s possible that there may be damage over a wide area,” Abe said.
The meteorological agency initially said the Saturday quake registered magnitude of 7.1 but later revised it up to 7.3.
The region’s transport network suffered considerable damage: one tunnel caved in, a highway bridge was damaged, roads were blocked by landslides and train services halted, media reported. Kumamoto airport was also closed.
Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda said it is too early to assess the economic impact and bank operations in Kumamoto were normal.
“We’ll closely monitor the effect of the earthquake and take appropriate action, working closely with relevant authorities,” Kuroda said in Washington after a Group of 20 finance leaders’ meeting.
Much of the area around Kumamoto and a few sizable towns is rural. Television footage showed many frightened people wrapped in blankets sitting outside their homes while others camped out in rice fields.
Shotaro Sakamoto, a Kumamoto prefectural official, said Saturday’s quake felt comparable to Thursday’s.
“It was really strong … many people on the street appeared panicked,” he said.
Meteorological Agency official Gen Aoki said Saturday’s earthquake was the strongest to hit Japan in recent days, and said Thursday’s was merely a “precursor.”
The earthquake Thursday evening in the same region had a magnitude of 6.4 and experts said the tectonic events could be linked.
“Thursday’s quake might have been a foreshock of this one,” Shinji Toda, a professor at Tohoku University, told NHK.
Several aftershocks rattled the region later Saturday, including two of nearly magnitude-6, and experts warned of more.
“We would not be surprised to see more earthquakes of this size,” said John Bellini, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
A magnitude-9 quake in March 2011 in the Tohoku region touched off a massive tsunami and that in turn smashed into the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station, causing reactor meltdowns.
Nearly 20,000 people were killed as a result of the tsunami.
Japan is on the seismically active “ring of fire” around the Pacific Ocean and has strict building codes aimed at helping structures withstand earthquakes.
Factories in the area operated by manufacturers including Honda Motor Co. and Sony Corp. halted production after Thursday’s tremor but no major damage was reported.
The 2011 quake temporarily crippled part of Japan’s auto supply chain, but some companies have since adjusted the industry’s “just in time” production philosophy in a bid to limit any repeat of the disruption.