WORLD

Powerful earthquakes leave at least 55 dead, destroy buildings along Japan’s western coast

Jan 2, 2024, 7:13 AM | Updated: 11:54 am

Residents clean up after New Years earthquake in Japan. (Getty Images)...

Residents clean up after New Years earthquake in Japan. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

WAJIMA, Japan (AP) — A series of powerful earthquakes that hit western Japan have left at least 55 people dead and damaged thousands of buildings, vehicles and boats. Officials warned Tuesday that more quakes could lie ahead.

Aftershocks continued to shake Ishikawa prefecture and nearby areas a day after a magnitude 7.6 temblor slammed the area.

Damage was so great that it could not immediately be assessed. Japanese media reports said tens of thousands of homes were destroyed.

Government spokesperson Yoshimasa Hayashi said 17 people were seriously injured and gave a slightly lower death toll, saying he was aware of the prefecture’s tally.

Water, power and cell phone service were still down in some areas. Residents expressed sorrow about their uncertain futures.

“It’s not just that it’s a mess. The wall has collapsed, and you can see through to the next room. I don’t think we can live here anymore,” Miki Kobayashi, an Ishikawa resident, said as she swept around her house.

The house was also damaged in a 2007 quake, she said.

Although casualty numbers continued to climb gradually, the prompt public warnings, relayed on broadcasts and phones, and the quick response from the general public and officials appeared to have limited some of the damage.

Toshitaka Katada, a University of Tokyo professor specializing in disasters, said people were prepared because the area had been hit by quakes in recent years. They had evacuation plans and emergency supplies in stock.

“There are probably no people on Earth who are as disaster-ready as the Japanese,” he told The Associated Press.

Japan is frequently hit by earthquakes because of its location along the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.

Katada warned the situation remains precarious and unpredictable. The March 2011 quake and tsunami in northeastern Japan had been preceded by other quakes.

“This is far from over,” Katada said.

Predictions by scientists have repeatedly been proven wrong, such as with the 2016 quake in southwestern Kumamoto, an area previously seen as relatively quake-free.

“Having too much confidence in the power of science is very dangerous. We are dealing with nature,” Katada said.

Japanese media’s aerial footage showed widespread damage in the hardest-hit spots, with landslides burying roads, boats tossed in the waters and a fire that had turned an entire section of Wajima city to ashes.

Japan’s military dispatched 1,000 soldiers to the disaster zones to join rescue efforts, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday.

“Saving lives is our priority and we are fighting a battle against time,” he said. “It is critical that people trapped in homes get rescued immediately.”

A quake with a preliminary magnitude of 5.6 shook the Ishikawa area as he was speaking. Quakes continued to rock the area, reaching more than 100 aftershocks over the past day.

Nuclear regulators said several nuclear plants in the region were operating normally. A major quake and tsunami in 2011 caused three reactors to melt and release large amounts of radiation at a nuclear plant in northeastern Japan.

On Monday, the Japan Meteorological Agency issued a major tsunami warning for Ishikawa and lower-level tsunami warnings or advisories for the rest of the western coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu, as well as for the northern island of Hokkaido.

The warning was downgraded several hours later, and all tsunami warnings were lifted as of early Tuesday. Waves measuring more than one meter (3 feet) hit some places.

Still, half-sunken ships floated in bays where tsunami waves had rolled in, leaving a muddied coastline.

People who were evacuated from their houses huddled in auditoriums, schools and community centers. Bullet trains in the region were halted, but service was mostly restored by Tuesday afternoon. Sections of highways were closed.

Weather forecasters predicted rain, setting off worries about crumbling buildings and infrastructure.

The region includes tourist spots famous for lacquerware and other traditional crafts, along with designated cultural heritage sites.

U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement that his administration was “ready to provide any necessary assistance for the Japanese people.”

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Kageyama reported from Tokyo. Videographer Richard Columbo contributed from Wajima.

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Yuri Kageyama is on X https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

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Powerful earthquakes leave at least 55 dead, destroy buildings along Japan’s western coast