• Compiled From Kyodo, Staff Report

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Damage caused by Friday’s earthquake-tsunami catastrophe expanded Saturday with the combined number of people dead or unaccounted for feared to top 1,700.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano expressed the government’s determination to bring relief to disaster-hit areas, telling a meeting of the emergency disaster headquarters Saturday, “This is the largest earthquake since the Meiji Era, and it is believed that more than 1,000 people have lost their lives.”

The death toll has reached 564 so far, a police tally showed, while 200 to 300 bodies were transferred to Sendai. It was also reported that another 200 bodies were transferred to gymnasiums in Iwanuma and Natori, both in Miyagi Prefecture, while around 600 people are missing following the 2:46 p.m. quake with a magnitude of 8.8, the strongest ever recorded in Japan.

Around 210,000 people evacuated in five prefectures, including Iwate and Fukushima, at a time when strong aftershocks continued, according to the National Police Agency.

Fires in residential areas continued, with Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture suffering three large-scale fires.

The number of partially or completely destroyed buildings has now reached some 3,400, with the number of fires that hit quake-affected areas totaling about 200, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. Meanwhile, the welfare ministry said 181 welfare facilities, including nursing homes, have been damaged.

In Iwate Prefecture, the city of Rikuzentakata was virtually destroyed by tsunami, police said. Water pushed by the tsunami reached as high as the third floor of City Hall, and only a few buildings remained.

The coastal area of Miyako and almost all of the town of Yamada, both in Iwate, were also submerged.

Around 1,800 houses in Fukushima Prefecture were destroyed, according to the National Police Agency.

As rescue officials have not been able to access the tsunami-hit areas due to warnings still in effect, the overall picture of the destruction remains unclear.

A municipal official in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, said, “More than 90 percent of the houses in three coastal communities have been washed away by tsunami. Looking from the fourth floor of the town hall, I see no houses standing.”

In the quake-hit areas, around 5.5 million households had lost power as of Saturday morning, while more than 1 million households in 18 prefectures had had their water supply cut off.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan met with leaders of both the ruling and opposition parties to ask for their cooperation on a supplementary budget that the government is expected to compile for rescue and recovery operations of the earthquake.

“For recovery efforts, a budget will be involved,” Kan said. “I ask for your opinions and proposals.”

Liberal Democratic Party President Sadakazu Tanigaki said his party is ready to cooperate in clearing a supplementary budget in the Diet that will fund aids, rescue and recovery projects.

He also said the Diet should call a recess for about a week so Kan and ministers can focus on tackling the disaster.

“Considering the fact that this is a national crisis, it isn’t a time for Diet deliberations for the time being,” Tanigaki told reporters. “The Diet should call a recess so that ministers can focus on disaster management.”

Other opposition parties also agreed with Tanigaki’s proposal, he said.

Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Katsuya Okada said he will consider the proposal, but was also cautious since a recess will inevitably delay the passage of the budget and related bills.

On Saturday morning, meanwhile, several strong quakes, one with a magnitude of 6.7 at 3:59 a.m., rocked an inland area on the Sea of Japan coast northwest of Tokyo, hitting Nagano and Niigata prefectures.

Saturday’s first predawn quake, which originated at a depth of 10 km in Niigata’s Chuetsu region, measured upper-6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale to 7 in Nagano Prefecture, the Meteorological Agency said.

The agency said it could not rule out the possibility that the latest quake was triggered by Friday’s quake.

Four trains running in a coastal area of Miyagi and Iwate prefectures are unaccounted for after the tsunami hit the area, the railway said Saturday.

While it is not known how many people were aboard the trains on East Japan Railway Co.’s Ofunato, Senseki and Kesennuma lines along the Pacific coast, several passengers and crew members were rescued.

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