Kyushu evacuees rise to 196,000

Source: The Japan Times

Search and rescue operations intensified in Kyushu on Sunday and a 61-year-old woman was found dead, which brought the death toll from the twin earthquakes that hit last week to 42.

According to police, about 11 people are still missing, and thousands of rescuers continued their searches for them and other people possibly buried alive in collapsed structures.

The woman was found near her collapsed house in Minamiaso, Kumamoto Prefecture. She was identified as Rieko Katashima, according to the Kumamoto Prefectural Government.

Meanwhile, the number of evacuees, which hit 196,000 at the peak Sunday, fell to about 110,000 as many people went back to their homes later in the day.

However, because of still-continuing aftershocks, there is no immediate prospect of many other evacuees being able to return home, and this means that their stay in the evacuation shelters may be prolonged, government officials said.

According to the Meteorological Agency, 478 tremors of Level 1 or stronger on Japan’s quake intensity scale of seven were recorded between Thursday and 9 p.m. Sunday.

As of Sunday morning, about 196,000 people had been evacuated. This includes about 183,900 in Kumamoto Prefecture and 12,400 in neighboring Oita.

Later the same day, the total number of evacuees in the two prefectures fell to about 110,000.

About 250,000 households were without water and 100,000 without gas in Kumamoto Prefecture as of Sunday evening. As of 9 p.m., some 39,000 households were without power.

Saturday’s 7.3-magnitude temblor killed at least 33 people and injured about 1,000 more, while causing widespread damage to houses, roads and bridges.

It was the second major quake to hit the prefecture in 48 hours. The first, on Thursday evening, left nine people dead.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tokyo has welcomed a U.S. offer of assistance in which military forces and resources will help transport personnel and relief supplies to the disaster-hit areas.

Earlier, Abe had said Japan did not immediately need such assistance.

“We’d like to carry out (joint operations) as soon as we finish coordination for transportation needs,” Abe told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Later in the day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft may be used to facilitate relief efforts.

Many anti-U.S. military activists, in particular those in Okinawa, oppose the Osprey, claiming it is dangerous given the number of fatal accidents that occurred during its development.

Tokyo and Washington deny these accusations, noting accident rates are not particularly high now and are comparable with other aircraft used by U.S. forces

On Sunday Abe said the central government will also make every effort to help transport food supplies to disaster-hit areas by the end of the day, including about 700,000 meals.

“We have been carrying out search and rescue missions day and night, but still some people are missing,” Abe said.

As heavy rains fueled worries of more landslides, thousands spent the night in evacuation centers.

Firefighters handed out tarpaulins so homeowners could cover damaged roofs, but many have simply been abandoned.

The indiscriminate nature of the destruction saw some houses reduced to piles of rubble and smashed roof tiles while neighboring homes were left standing.

“I felt strong shaking at first, then I was thrown about like I was in a washing machine,” said a Tokai University student who remains trapped in the village of Minamiaso.

NHK showed footage of people being rescued by helicopters after they were stranded by a collapsed bridge.

Self-Defense Forces troops set up tents for evacuees as water trucks were sent to the area.

The government said about 190 of those injured in Saturday’s quake were in serious condition.

Japan, which sits on the seismically active “ring of fire” that circles the Pacific Ocean, has strict building codes aimed at helping structures withstand earthquakes.

Saturday’s quake was centered near the city of Kumamoto at a shallow depth of 10 km, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) said. The shallower a quake, the more likely it is to cause damage.

However, no irregularities were reported at three nuclear power plants in the area, a senior government official said.

The city’s 400-year-old Kumamoto Castle was badly damaged, its walls breached after having withstood bombardment and fire during its four centuries of existence.

Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda, speaking at a G-20 event in Washington, said it was too early to assess the economic impact, but bank operations in Kumamoto were proceeding as normal.

The USGS estimated there is a 72 percent likelihood that economic damage will exceed $10 billion, adding that it was too early to be specific. Major insurers have yet to release estimates.

Electronics giant Sony Corp. said a plant producing image sensors for smartphone makers would remain closed while it assessed the damage from the quakes. One of its major customers is Apple, who uses the sensors in its iPhones.

Operations at Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd were also disrupted.

The region’s transport network suffered considerable damage with one tunnel caved in, a highway bridge damaged, roads cut or blocked by landslides and train services halted, the media reported. Kumamoto airport was also closed.

There have been 378 aftershocks of at least a level 1 on the Japanese scale since Thursday’s quake, NHK reported.