UPDATE – Search for missing continues after fatal Japan quakes


Death toll rises to 42 while around 11 people remain missing in southwest Kumamoto Prefecture


By Todd Crowell

TOKYO – Rescuers continued to search for survivors late Sunday after two earthquakes left 42 people dead in southwest Japan, where tens of thousands took shelter in public places overnight amid heavy rainfall and virtually continuous aftershocks.

Kumamoto Prefecture’s government reported that 11 people remain missing after two severe earthquakes struck around 24 hours apart and were followed by more than 400 aftershocks since Thursday night, according to Kyodo news agency.

The Japan Meteorological Agency now believes that the second quake, which registered 7.3 on the Richter Scale early Saturday, was the main event and Thursday night’s was a precursor.

It warned that another severe quake could hit Kumamoto on Sunday, where 2,000 Self-Defense Forces personnel, police and firefighters are conducting search operations in Minamiaso, a village hit by a massive landslide.

The second quake brought the death toll to 42 and the number of injured to around 2,000 — with 33 of the fatalities resulting from Saturday’s tremors.

The region experienced landslides and the destruction of private homes, bridges roadways and expressways.

Kumamoto’s government estimated that more than 183,000 people took shelter in schools, parks or even in their cars as of Sunday morning, too afraid to risk returning to their homes, even if they appear undamaged.

The number reportedly fell to around 111,000 in the afternoon.

In the midst of the destruction , the nearby Mount Aso — Japan’s tallest active volcano — erupted, but the Meteorological Agency deemed it was not powerful enough to recommend an evacuation.

The rains that fell Saturday night continued into Sunday, raising concerns of further landslides from hillsides loosened by the earthquake.

One landslide dumped tons of dirt and rocks onto a national highway and damaged railroad tracks running parallel to the road.

Local hospitals were crammed with casualties suffering head injuries and broken bones.

They were hampered in delivering care by power outages that blanketed much of the region, where 450,000 households experienced blackouts in Kumamoto.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cancelled a planned visit to the region Saturday after the second big shaking and amid the likelihood of further aftershocks, but the government has dispatched more troops, bringing the total to 25,000.

“I ordered [relevant ministries] to ensure supplies of food, medicine and water to those who have been evacuated and spent a worrying night at shelters,” Kyodo quoted Abe telling reporters at the premier’s office Sunday.

He added that Tokyo would accept an offer by the United States to provide military airlift support.

Aside from damaged and collapsed private homes, some other public facilities were badly damaged.

A dormitory of the Aso campus of Tokai University collapsed.

The turrets of Kumamoto Castle — which had stood for more than two centuries — toppled after one of the supporting walls collapsed.

The quake also destroyed the Aso Temple — another important national cultural site — knocking the roof of its main gate to the ground.

It was much too soon to talk about reconstruction or to give an estimate of the damage, which will undoubtedly be huge.

Japan is still trying to recover from the Great East Japan Earthquake that led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster five years ago.