A powerful earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 7.3 struck southern Japan early Saturday, barely 24 hours after a smaller quake hit the same region and killed 10 people
TOKYO – Continuing aftershocks and the threat of heavy rain and wind added urgency to rescue efforts Saturday as authorities raced to help victims of two powerful earthquakes that struck southwestern Japan.
At least 29 people have been killed and some 1,500 injured in the two quakes that struck Kumamoto Prefecture late Thursday and early Saturday, according to Japan’s Kyodo News Service.
Many victims are feared trapped in collapsed homes and buildings, particularly in towns and villages cut off by downed bridges or landslides that have blocked key roads and highways.
The national government has dispatched 20,000 troops – many trained especially for disaster relief operations – to join thousands of local police, firefighters and rescue workers.
An approaching storm system was expected to arrive in the area late Saturday, prompting the government to rush additional rescue workers to the area, along with thousands of water-proof tarps to protect victims and workers.
Authorities fear that heavy rain could trigger additional landslides in the mountainous region.
“Daytime today is the big test” for rescuers, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at the outset of an emergency meeting in Tokyo on Saturday. Abe said he had planned to travel to the stricken area on Saturday but canceled plans so as not to impede rescue operations on the ground.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference Saturday that workers are aware of multiple locations where victims “have been buried alive.”
“Police, firefighters and Self Defense Force personnel are doing all they can to rescue them,” Suga said. He said about 70,000 people have sought shelter in emergency centers.
Kyodo News reported that police had received 97 reports of people trapped or buried under collapsed buildings, while ten people were caught in landslides.
Aftershocks continued to hit the area on Saturday, rattling damaged structures and interrupting rescue operations.
The Japan Earthquake Research Committee reported that 252 smaller quakes or aftershocks had hit the area by 11 a.m. Saturday.
A magnitude-6.5 earthquake struck the Kumamoto region at about 9:26 p.m., local time, Thursday, and was followed by an even larger magnitude-7.3 quake at about 1:25 a.m. Saturday.
Both quakes were centered in Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, one of the country’s four main islands.