Japan earthquakes: Dozens killed; ‘race against the clock’ to find survivors

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TOKYO, Japan — Heavy rains and winds were expected through Sunday after Japan’s Kyushu region was struck by twin earthquakes, further hampering emergency efforts to rescue survivors trapped in rubble and forcing nervous residents into crowded evacuation centers amid violent aftershocks.

At least 32 people have died in the latest Kyushu earthquake, according to Kumamoto Prefecture’s disaster management office. The magnitude-7.0 quake hit early Saturday.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described the search for survivors as a “race against the clock,” noting that bad weather had conspired with the devastating quake, its aftershocks and the threat of landslides to make a dire situation worse.

At least 23 people are buried inside buildings, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

“We’re racing against the clock,” Abe said. “(We) will provide more personnel if necessary.”

Residents were already edgy after a 6.2. quake rattled the area two days earlier, killing nine people. The combined death toll has reached 41. Both earthquakes left 968 people injured, according to the disaster management office.

“This is worst thing that could happened to us,” said Shigeru Morita, an official in the town of Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture.

The latest and most powerful earthquake struck near the city of Kumamoto, toppling buildings and bridges, shredding sections of landmarks into piles of debris, and sending frightened residents fleeing from their homes and into the night.

Thursday’s earthquake hit near Ueki city, just 15 kilometers away.

“The first earthquake was very big,” said Osamu Yoshizumi, the senior chief of international affairs in Kumamoto. “We thought it was the big one.”

That initial earthquake was a “foreshock” to the latest one, according to USGS.

A bigger tremor would come overnight Friday.

“When the second earthquake came everything shook and I thought I might die,” said Taiki Hishida, 38, who evacuated with his wife and two young children to a crowded shelter in Mashiki.

Kumamoto prefecture continues to experience as many as 165 aftershocks.

“I feel every aftershock,” said Yoshizumi, who was working from the city hall building in Kumamoto. “It’s swaying here every hour.”

Rescue efforts

The aftershocks also could hamper rescue efforts as emergency workers attempt to pull people trapped in the rubble. TV Asahi showed crews crawling over a collapsed roof in an attempt to find an elderly couple. An 80-year-old man was pulled from the rubble, according to CNN affiliate TV Asahi.

Japan has deployed 20,000 self-defense forces to the rescue effort, Suga said.

The tremors appear to have caused extensive damage, overturning cars, splitting roads and triggering a landslide as shown by TV Asahi footage. Television images showed flattened houses, shards of broken glass and debris piled onto the streets and people huddled outside. Nearly 92,000 people have evacuated, according to the prefecture’s disaster management office.

The Kumamoto government has opened over 100 evacuation centers for residents and have started handing out food, water and blankets, Yoshizumi said.

Kumamoto Castle, a famous site in Japan built in the early 17th century, is badly damaged, he said.

Hundreds treated

The Red Cross treated more than 1,000 people in the Kumamoto area Friday, but the organization anticipates the number will increase following Saturday’s earthquake.

“The most serious [patient] cases were cut by glasses or the collapse of some houses,” said Nobuaki Sato, director of the International Relief Division at the Japanese Red Cross.

“We don’t know what is happening in the whole disaster area because it is a remote mountain area and some big bridges were down and many landslides were found so we were working around the clock and are making assessments. But so far the road access is not easy to the remote areas.”

Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency said 7,262 people have sought shelter since Friday in the Kumamoto Prefecture.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had intended to visit Kumamoto on Saturday, but called off his visit. His office told CNN that the prime minister would instead spearhead efforts from Tokyo. The country’s air force will send six planes and nine ships to Kumamoto to deliver food, blankets and all emergency necessities.

Japan received offers of support from other nations.

Japan’s ‘Ring of Fire’

The shallow depth of the latest quake and the dense population of where it struck could prove to be devastating, according to experts.

“No question, this is a large and very important earthquake,” said Doug Given, a geophysicist with the USGS. “And it will do a lot of damage.”

“The four islands of Japan are on the edge of what’s traditionally been known as the ‘Ring of Fire'” — a stretch along parts of the Pacific Ocean prone to volcanoes and earthquakes.

Victor Sardina, a geophysicist in Honolulu, Hawaii, told CNN that the latest quake was about 30 times more powerful than the first one near Ueki. He predicted “severe, serious implications in terms of damage and human losses.”

Japanese media reported a small scale eruption of Mt. Aso on Saturday morning. It was unclear whether it’s related to the earthquake, according to the Japan’s meteorological agency.

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