Emergency workers struggle to get aid to quake-ravaged northern Japan
Associated Press Writer
NAGAOKA, Japan (AP) – Emergency workers struggled to rush food and blankets to crowded evacuation centers as strong aftershocks jolted an earthquake-shattered swath of northern Japan on Monday. The weekend quakes killed 25 people and drove some 100,000 from their homes.
A 5.6-magnitude aftershock hit just after dawn Monday, swaying buildings and deepening fears that the area’s already shaky infrastructure would sustain more damage. Several other, smaller aftershocks were felt through the night, and Japan’s Meteorological Agency warned of more quakes in the region.
Rain began falling on the region late Monday, threatening to unleash mudslides as it pelted soil loosened by the earthquakes.
Officials said some 98,000 people had sought refuge at gymnasiums and public buildings following Saturday evening’s 6.8-magnitude tremor, which knocked down houses, ripped through roads and bridges and derailed a high speed train in rural Niigata prefecture, about 160 miles northwest of Tokyo.
Much of the region remained without water, electricity or gas Monday morning. Officials struggled over ruined roadways to fill a shortfall in food supplies in the area and bring blankets, needed to brave near-freezing nighttime temperatures.
In Nagaoka, the largest city in the quake zone, homeless residents pitched tents in a neighborhood park and lined up with cans and bottles in front of a water truck that arrived for the first time early Monday.
“The aftershocks are still strong, so we felt it was safer to stay here even though our house wasn’t all that badly damaged,” said Misako Tsubata as she sipped tea outside the tent where she was staying with her two daughters, her mother and her husband.
The national government in Tokyo said it was shipping another 10,000 blankets to the area. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said he wanted to visit the zone “as soon as possible.”
“We will do our best so that victims of the earthquake can live in safety as soon as possible,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told reporters, adding that the government had shipped loads of canned biscuits to the area on Sunday.
Saturday’s quake was the worst to hit Japan since 1995, when more than 6,000 people were killed by a 7.2 magnitude temblor in and around the port city of Kobe.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker pledged $50,000 in aid “as a symbol of the U.S. desire to do whatever it can to assist the government and people of Japan during this difficult time,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.
Some 389 aftershocks strong enough to be felt were recorded in the two days following the initial jolt. By Monday morning, the death toll had reached 25. About 2,000 people were reported injured, most of whom had been treated and released by Monday.
With buckled roads and closed tunnels along the highways causing severe traffic jams, military helicopters ferried food and supplies to outlying villages, which remained cut off from the outside world. Train and bus services to the area remained largely shut down, adding to the residents’ feeling of isolation.
The derailment of the bullet train, while traveling at 125 mph, caused no injuries to the 151 passengers, but it nevertheless prompted an investigation of the safety of Japan’s advanced railway system.
“The situation could have been worse,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said Monday. “We need to find out if this could have been prevented and what should be done because … there could have been a major accident.”
Indeed, speculation was high Monday that the train was saved from overturning because it was an older, slower and heavier model. Newer versions have cars 30 percent lighter and travel up to 185 mph.
The National Police Agency counted 89 landslides and roads sliced in 1,330 places. Destroyed buildings totaled 151 and partially damaged structures reached 2,607, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said.
Officials were worried further quakes would cause more mayhem, and helicopters circled over the area urging residents through loudspeakers to evacuate their homes.
In Nigorizawa, a village famous for raising carp, some of the residents were hiking down the mountain road with their belongings to seek shelter. The area, next to Nagaoka, was one of the worst-hit spots.
Bulldozers worked to clear the road in front of Suzuko Kikue’s home, which narrowly missed being buried under a landslide.
“When the hillside gave in, our whole house shook – it was terrifying,” said Kikue, 83, as she cleaned up the kitchen.
But Kikue said she would ignore instructions to evacuate.
“I’d rather stay,” she said. “This my home. It’s not so bad.”
As of Monday evening, 53,000 households were still without electricity, according to Tohoku Electric Power Co.
Several factories of major manufacturers, including Sanyo Electric Co. and Alps Electric Co., have been affected and suspended operation, raising concerns about supply shortages.
The shortages of food and blankets were improving with help coming in from neighboring regions, said Hisao Ishikawa, a Niigata spokesman.
National broadcaster NHK said supplies were short in part because the local government used up most relief goods in typhoon damages earlier this month.