Race against time after deadly Japan quake

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Japanese rescuers battled the clock and powerful aftershocks Tuesday to find survivors of a New Year’s Day earthquake that killed at least 48 people and caused widespread destruction.

The 7.5 magnitude quake that rattled Ishikawa prefecture on the main island of Honshu triggered tsunami waves more than a metre high, caused a major fire and tore apart roads.

On the Noto Peninsula, the destruction included buildings damaged by fire, houses flattened, fishing boats sunk or washed ashore, and highways hit by landslides.

“I’m amazed the house is this broken and everyone in my family managed to come out of it unscathed,” said Akiko, standing outside her parents’ tilting home in the badly hit city of Wajima.

The way 2024 started “will be etched into my memory forever”, she told AFP after what she called the “long and violent” earthquake on Monday.

“It was such a powerful jolt,” Tsugumasa Mihara, 73, said as he queued with hundreds of others for water in the nearby town of Shika.

Local authorities put the death toll at 48, but the number was expected to rise as rescuers comb through the rubble.

“Very extensive damage has been confirmed, including numerous casualties, building collapses and fires,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said after a disaster response meeting.

“We have to race against time to search for and rescue victims of the disaster.”

Aerial news footage showed the terrifying scale of a fire that ripped through the old market area of Wajima, where a seven-storey commercial building also collapsed. Quake damage impaired rescue efforts to put out the blaze.

Almost 33,000 households were without power in the region, which saw temperatures touch freezing overnight, the local energy provider said. Many cities were without running water.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake had a magnitude of 7.5. Japan’s meteorological agency measured it at 7.6, and said it was one of more than 210 to shake the region through Tuesday evening.

Several strong jolts were felt early Tuesday, including one measuring 5.6 that prompted national broadcaster NHK to switch to a special programme.

“Please take deep breaths,” the presenter said, reminding viewers to check for fires in their kitchens.

 Tsunami warning lifted 

On Monday, waves at least 1.2 metres (four feet) high hit Wajima and a series of smaller tsunamis were reported elsewhere.

Warnings of much larger waves proved unfounded and on Tuesday, Japan lifted all tsunami warnings.

Images on social media showed cars, houses and bridges in Ishikawa wobbling violently as terrified people cowered in shops and train stations.

Houses collapsed and huge cracks appeared in roads while others were hit by landslides. Forecasters warned that rains could further loosen soil on hillsides.

A team of firefighters crawled under a collapsed commercial building in Wajima looking for survivors, television footage showed.

“Hang in there! Hang in there,” they shouted as they battled through piles of wooden beams with an electric saw.

The fire in Wajima engulfed as many as 200 structures, reports said, with people evacuated in the dark, some with blankets and others carrying babies.

A duty officer at the Wajima Fire Department said authorities were overwhelmed Tuesday by rescue calls and reports of damage.

Ishikawa Governor Hiroshi Hase wrote on social media that roads had been cut in widespread areas by landslides or cracking, while in the port of Suzu “multiple” vessels had capsized.

Suzu’s mayor called the damage in the city “catastrophic” and said 1,000 houses had been completely destroyed there, with 4,000 to 5,000 residents unable to live in their homes, according to local media.

 Bullet trains suspended 

Monday’s quake shook apartments in the capital Tokyo about 300 kilometres (186 miles) away, where a public New Year’s Day greeting event by Emperor Naruhito was cancelled.

Overnight about 1,400 people were stuck on suspended bullet trains, including Georgia’s ambassador Teimuraz Lezhava who praised the “kindness of the station staff and the passengers around us” on social media.

Around 1,000 others were stuck in local express trains for almost 24 hours after they were halted on Monday, NHK said.

About 500 people were also stranded at Noto’s damaged airport, with access roads blocked and the runway riddled with cracks.

Japan experiences hundreds of earthquakes every year and the vast majority cause no damage.

The number of earthquakes in the Noto Peninsula region has been steadily increasing since 2018, a Japanese government report said last year.

The country is haunted by a massive 9.0 magnitude undersea quake off northeastern Japan in 2011 which triggered a tsunami that left around 18,500 people dead or missing.

It also swamped the Fukushima atomic plant, causing one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters.

Japan’s nuclear authority said there were no abnormalities reported at the Shika atomic power plant in Ishikawa or other plants after the latest quake.

China on Tuesday joined the United States and other countries in expressing condolences.

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