Japan is rocked by huge quake

At least nine die on island of Hokkaido in latest natural disaster

Disaster: A car stuck on a road damaged by the earthquake in Sapporo, Hokkaido, yesterday. Photo: Getty
Disaster: A car stuck on a road damaged by the earthquake in Sapporo, Hokkaido, yesterday. Photo: Getty

A powerful earthquake on Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido yesterday triggered dozens of landslides, crushing houses under torrents of mud, rocks and timber, prompting frantic efforts to unearth survivors.

At least nine people were killed, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said. Officials said at least 366 were injured, five seriously, and about 30 were unaccounted for after the magnitude 6.7 earthquake jolted people from their beds at 3.08am.

Nearly three million households were left without power by the quake, the latest in an exhausting run of natural disasters for Japan.

It paralysed normal business on the island as blackouts cut off water to homes, immobilised trains and airports, causing hundreds of flight cancellations, and shut down phone systems.

In the town of Atsuma, where entire hillsides collapsed, rescuers used hoes and shovels to search for survivors under tons of earth that tumbled down steep mountainsides, burying houses and farm buildings. The area’s green hills were marred by reddish-brown gashes where soil tore loose under violent tremors.

Some 28 people were unaccounted for in the town, Atsuma mayor Shoichiro Miyasaka said. “We will carry on searching for them,” he said.

Mr Miyasaka said the town had emergency meals for up to 2,000 people and more than 500 had sought refuge in its emergency shelters.

The landslides ripped through some homes and buried others. Some residents described waking to find their next-door neighbours gone. “The entire thing just collapsed,” said one. “It’s unbelievable.”

The island’s only nuclear power plant, which was offline for routine safety checks, temporarily switched to a back-up generator to keep its spent fuel cool. Nuclear regulators said there was no sign of abnormal radiation – a concern after a massive quake and tsunami in March 2011 that hit north-east Japan destroyed both external and back-up power to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, causing meltdowns.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency said the quake’s epicentre was 40km deep, but it still wreaked havoc across much of the relatively sparsely inhabited island.

Many roads were closed and some were impassable. Television images showed workers rushing to clean up shattered glass and reinstall ceiling panels that had fallen in the region’s biggest airport at Chitose.

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Japan is used to dealing with disasters, but the last few months have brought a string of calamities. The quake came on the heels of a typhoon that lifted heavy trucks off their wheels and triggered major flooding in western Japan, leaving the main airport near Osaka and Kobe closed after a tanker rammed a bridge connecting the facility to the mainland.

The summer also brought devastating floods and landslides from torrential rains in Hiroshima and deadly hot temperatures across the country.

Mr Abe said up to 25,000 troops and other personnel would be dispatched to Hokkaido to help with rescue operations.

As Japan’s northern frontier and a major farming region, with rugged mountain ranges and vast forests, Hokkaido is an area accustomed to coping with long winters, isolation and other hardships. But the blackouts brought on by the quake underscored the country’s heavy reliance on vulnerable power systems. Without electricity, water was cut to many homes, train lines were left idle and phone systems out of order.

In the prefectural capital of Sapporo, a city of 1.9 million, the quake ruptured roads and knocked houses askew. A mudslide left several cars half buried.

Economy, trade and industry minister Hiroshige Seko said the extensive power outage was caused by an emergency shutdown of the main thermal power plant at Tomato-Atsuma, which supplies half of Hokkaido’s electricity.

The hope had been to get power back up within hours and some electricity was gradually being restored. However, damage to generators at the plant meant a full restoration of power could take more than a week, Mr Seko said.

Irish Independent

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