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Fears grow about saving people still trapped from Japan quake that has killed dozens

A man cries as a body of his family member was found from a collapsed house caused by powerful earthquake in Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024.
Hiro Komae
/
AP
A man cries as a body of his family member was found from a collapsed house caused by powerful earthquake in Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024.

Updated January 2, 2024 at 11:32 PM ET

SUZU, Japan — A series of powerful earthquakes that hit western Japan left at least 62 people dead Wednesday, as rescue workers fought to save those feared trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings.

Aftershocks continued to shake Ishikawa prefecture and nearby areas two days after a magnitude 7.6 temblor slammed the area. The first 72 hours are considered crucial to save lives after disasters.

Water, power and cell phone service were still down in some areas. Residents expressed sorrow about their uncertain futures.

"It's not just that it's a mess. The wall has collapsed, and you can see through to the next room. I don't think we can live here anymore," Miki Kobayashi, an Ishikawa resident, said as she swept around her house.

The house was also damaged in a 2007 quake, she said.

Of the deaths, 29 were counted in Wajima city, while 22 people died in Suzu, according to Ishikawa Prefectural authorities. Dozens of people have been seriously injured, including in nearby prefectures.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, second from left, speaks at a disaster response meeting at his office in Tokyo Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024.
/ AP
/
AP
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, second from left, speaks at a disaster response meeting at his office in Tokyo Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024.

Although casualty numbers continued to climb gradually, the prompt public warnings, relayed on broadcasts and phones, and the quick response from the general public and officials appeared to have limited some of the damage.

Toshitaka Katada, a University of Tokyo professor specializing in disasters, said people were prepared because the area had been hit by quakes in recent years. They had evacuation plans and emergency supplies in stock.

"There are probably no people on Earth who are as disaster-ready as the Japanese," he told The Associated Press.

Japan is frequently hit by earthquakes because of its location along the "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.

Katada warned the situation remains precarious and unpredictable. The March 2011 quake and tsunami in northeastern Japan had been preceded by other quakes.

"This is far from over," Katada said.

Predictions by scientists have repeatedly been proven wrong, such as with the 2016 quake in southwestern Kumamoto, an area previously seen as relatively quake-free.

"Having too much confidence in the power of science is very dangerous. We are dealing with nature," Katada said.

Japanese media's aerial footage showed widespread damage in the hardest-hit spots, with landslides burying roads, boats tossed in the waters and a fire that had turned an entire section of Wajima city to ashes.

Japan's military has dispatched 1,000 soldiers to the disaster zones to join rescue efforts. It was uncertain how many more victims might still be in the rubble.

Nuclear regulators said several nuclear plants in the region were operating normally. A major quake and tsunami in 2011 caused three reactors to melt and release large amounts of radiation at a nuclear plant in northeastern Japan.

On Monday, the Japan Meteorological Agency issued a major tsunami warning for Ishikawa and lower-level tsunami warnings or advisories for the rest of the western coast of Japan's main island of Honshu, as well as for the northern island of Hokkaido.

The warning was downgraded several hours later, and all tsunami warnings were lifted as of early Tuesday. Waves measuring more than one meter (3 feet) hit some places.

Still, half-sunken ships floated in bays where tsunami waves had rolled in, leaving a muddied coastline.

People who were evacuated from their houses huddled in auditoriums, schools and community centers. Bullet trains in the region were halted, but service was mostly restored. Sections of highways were closed.

Weather forecasters predicted rain, setting off worries about crumbling buildings and infrastructure.

The region includes tourist spots famous for lacquerware and other traditional crafts, along with designated cultural heritage sites.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese joined President Joe Biden and other world leaders in expressing support for the Japanese.

"Our hearts go out to our friends in Japan," he said. "We will provide, and have offered, whatever support is requested by our friends in Japan."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press