Two powerful earthquakes a day apart shook southwestern Japan, killing at least 29 people, injuring 1,500, trapping many beneath flattened homes and sending thousands to seek shelter in gymnasiums and hotel lobbies.
The exact number of casualties remained unclear as rescue efforts continued to unfold Saturday. Oncoming rains could further complicate the relief operation and set off more mudslides in isolated rural towns, where people were waiting to be rescued in collapsed homes.
Kumamoto Prefectural official Tomoyuki Tanaka said the death toll was climbing by the hour, with the latest standing at 19 from Saturday’s magnitude-7.3 quake that shook the Kumamoto region on the southwestern island of Kyushu at 1:25 a.m. On Thursday night, Kyushu was hit by a magnitude-6.5 quake that left 10 dead.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that 1,500 people have been injured, 80 of them seriously. Nearly 70,000 have left their homes, he said.
A series of aftershocks ensued, including a magnitude-5.4 Saturday morning. The Japan Meteorological Agency said that the quake that struck earlier Saturday may be the main quake, with the earlier one a precursor. The quakes’ epicenters have been relatively shallow – about 10 kilometers (6 miles) – and close to the surface, resulting in more severe shaking and damage. NHK TV said as many as eight quakes were being felt an hour in the area.
Japanese media reported that nearly 200,000 homes were without electricity. Drinking water systems had also failed in the area. TV footage showed people huddled in blankets, quietly, shoulder to shoulder, on floors of evacuation centers.