Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered "government's full capacity" for a search and rescue effort after a second powerful earthquake hit southern Japan.
As USA Today reports, at least 41 people were killed and some 1,500 injured in the two quakes that struck Kumamoto Prefecture late Thursday and early Saturday...
Continuing aftershocks and the threat of heavy rain and wind added urgency to rescue efforts Saturday as authorities raced to help victims, many of whom are feared trapped in collapsed homes and buildings, particularly in towns and villages cut off by downed bridges or landslides blocking key roads and highways.
USA Today also notes that the national government 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 waterproof tarps to protect victims and workers.
“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 Saturday but canceled the trip 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.
Television footage showed fires, power outages, collapsed bridges, a severed road hanging over a ravine and gaping holes in the earth. Residents near a dam were told to leave because of fears it might crumble, broadcaster NHK said.
"I felt strong shaking at first, then I was thrown about like I was in a washing machine," said a Tokai University student who remains isolated in the village of Minamiaso in Kumamoto province on the island of Kyushu.
"All the lights went out and I heard a loud noise. A lot of gas is leaking and while there hasn't been a fire, that remains a concern," the student, who is sheltering in a university gym with 1,000 other students and residents, told Japanese media.
Many frightened people wrapped in blankets sat outside their homes while others camped out in rice fields in rural areas surrounding the main towns. About 422,000 households were without water, and about 100,000 without electricity, the government said. Troops were setting up tents for evacuees and water trucks were being sent to the area.
Heavy rain and wind were forecast, with temperature expected to drop to 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit) overnight. Firefighters handed out tarpaulins to residents so they could cover damaged roofs.
"The wind is expected to pick up and rain will likely get heavier," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a government meeting. "Rescue operations at night will be extremely difficult ... It's a race against time."
Television footage showed a landslide that had wiped out a bridge in a mountainous area.
Damage was also seen at the historic Kumamoto Castle, and buildings at the Aso Shrine collapsed.
The region's transport network suffered considerable damage with one tunnel caved in, a highway bridge damaged, roads cut or blocked by landslips and train services halted, media reported. Kumamoto airport was also closed.
There have been more than 230 aftershocks of at least level 1 on the Japanese scale since Thursday's shock, said Japan's meteorological agency.
"We have already seen of several of the mid to upper 5 plus magnitude range, and over the next several days and weeks, we would not be surprised to see more earthquakes of this size," said John Bellini, a geophysicist with the USGS.