Strongest earthquake since 2011 strikes Kumamoto area

AP, Kyodo, JIJI

At least two people were killed and 45 injured by a magnitude-6.5 earthquake that knocked down houses and buckled roads in Kyushu on Thursday night. The temblor logged a 7, the highest level on the Japanese intensity scale.

Both victims are from the hardest-hit town of Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture, about 15 km (9 miles) east of the city of Kumamoto, said Kumamoto prefecture disaster management official Takayuki Matsushita.

Earlier, Japanese Red Cross Kumamoto Hospital said it had admitted or treated 45 people, including five with serious injuries.

The quake struck at 9:26 p.m. at a depth of 11 km (7 miles) near the city of Kumamoto, the Meteorological Agency said. There was no tsunami risk.

“The shaking was so violent I couldn’t stand still,” said Hironobu Kosaki, a Kumamoto Prefectural Police night-duty official.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at least 19 houses collapsed, and hundreds of calls came in reporting building damage and people buried under debris or trapped inside.

“Because of the night darkness, the extent of damage is still unclear,” he said.

The damage and calls for help are concentrated in the town of Mashiki, about 1,300 km (800 miles) southwest of Tokyo, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said

One of the victims in Mashiki died after being pulled from some rubble, and the other was killed in a fire, Matsushita said. A third person rescued from under a collapsed building is in a state of heart and lung failure.

Matsushita said rescue operations were repeatedly disrupted by aftershocks.

“There was a ka-boom and the whole house shook violently sideways,” Takahiko Morita, a Mashiki resident, said in a telephone interview with NHK. “Furniture and bookshelves fell down, and books were all over the floor.”

Morita said some houses and walls collapsed in his neighborhood, and water supply had been cut off.

Dozens of people evacuated their homes and gathered outside Mashiki town hall, sitting on tarps well after midnight. Some wrapped blankets around their shoulders against the springtime chill.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that the government has mobilized police, firefighters and Self-Defense Forces troops for the rescue operation.

“We’ll carry out relief operation through the night,” he said.

Suga said there no abnormalities at nearby nuclear facilities. The epicenter was 120 km (74 miles) northeast of Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, the only one operating in the country.

Most of Japan’s nuclear reactors remain offline following the meltdowns at the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant in 2011 after a magnitude-9.0 earthquake triggered huge tsunami that knocked out the plant’s reactor cooling equipment.

Television footage showed fires breaking out in some places, with firefighters battling an orange blaze.

Keisukei Urata, an official in the nearby city of Uki who was driving home when the quake struck, told NHK that parts of the ceiling at Uki City Hall collapsed, windows broke and cabinets fell to the ground.

Kasumi Nakamura, an official in the village of Nishihara, said that the rattling started modestly and grew violent, lasting about 30 seconds.

“Papers, files, flower vases and everything fell on the floor,” he told NHK.

There were multiple aftershocks, the largest one with a preliminary magnitude of 6.4 shortly after midnight, according to the Meteorological Agency.

The U.S. Geological Survey measured the initial quake’s preliminary magnitude at 6.2. It upgraded its damage assessment to red, meaning extensive damage is probable and the disaster likely widespread.

Footage from an NHK bureau in the area showed books, files and papers raining down to the floor. One employee appeared to have fallen off a chair, while others slid under their desks to protect their heads.

The powerful earthquakes preliminary magnitude was 6.4 struck.

The quake, which logged the highest 7 on the Japanese earthquake intensity scale, jolted Kumamoto at around 9:26 p.m.

The extent of damage was not immediately clear, but reports of damaged buildings and injuries were slowly coming in.

In Mashiki, local authorities reported the deaths of two people.

More than 20 homes have collapsed and several people were trapped under debris. At least seven fires have been reported in the town.

Approximately 1,800 people in Mashiki have left their homes and are spending the night in evacuation zones.

More than 280 people were being treated for injuries at three hospitals in the city of Kumamoto, hospital officials said.

Places around Kumamoto also recorded strong jolts ranging between 3 and lower 5 on the Japanese scale.

A series of similarly shallow and frequent aftershocks followed, including one of a preliminary magnitude 6.4 — and upper 6 on the Japanese seismic scale — that hit the area shortly after midnight. Another measuring magnitude 5.7 occurred shortly after 10 p.m.

The weather agency earlier said the earthquake is believed to have struck at a depth of 10 km.

JR Kyushu suspended all operations on the Kyushu Shinkansen Line following the quake. On the Sanyo Shinkansen Line connecting the Honshu mainland and Kyushu, power was lost between Hakata and Kokura stations but operations later resumed at around 9:40 p.m.

Following the quake, Kyushu Electric Power Co. said it found no abnormalities in its Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima Prefecture. The operator said it is further looking into any possible damage.

Shikoku Electric Power Co. said its Ikata nuclear plant, which is currently idled, sustained no damage from the Kumamoto quake.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Abe immediately set up an emergency headquarters and instructed relevant authorities to gather information.

At a hastily arranged news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga said the government was doing its utmost to get a full picture of the situation, adding that its priority was the rescue operations.

Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said at a press conference that Self-Defense Forces airplanes and helicopters have been dispatched to the quake-hit area to ascertain the extent of damage. Currently more than 350 military personnel have been dispatched for rescue work.

According to the weather agency, the Kumamoto quake is the first intensity-7 quake since the Great East Japan Earthquake that wreaked havoc in the Tohoku region in March 2011.

The Meteorological Agency warned of aftershocks.

“Generally speaking, an inland earthquake with the focus relatively near the surface tends to be followed by many aftershocks,” Gen Aoki, director of the agency’s earthquake and tsunami monitoring division, said at a press conference in Tokyo.

This was the first quake to measure 7 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7 in Kyushu. Strong aftershocks including a jolt of upper 6 have already happened.

The intensity 7 was felt in the town of Mashiki. Near the town, there are the Futagawa and Hinagu faults.

The government’s task force to promote earthquake research expects a 7.0-magnitude quake to occur at the Futagawa fault over the next 30 years with probabilities of up to 0.9 percent and a 7.5-magnitude quake at the Hinagu rift with a maximum probability 6 percent.

The agency’s Aoki said that whether the day’s temblor has a connection with the faults is unclear.

But Keiichi Tadokoro, associate professor at Nagoya University’s Earthquake and Volcano Research Center, strongly suspects such a link.

“The largest intensity figure was recorded only in Mashiki, possibly because the ground there is easily shaken,” he pointed out. “Chances cannot be ruled out that an aftershock of intensity 5 upper could hit the area.”

The Futagawa fault stretches more than 64 km from the village of Minamiaso to the tip of the Uto Peninsula via Mashiki, while the Hinagu fault runs some 81 km from near Mashiki to the south of the Yatsushiro Sea, according to the task force.

Kumamoto quake info: where to go, how to help