Strong aftershocks rumble on in Japan’s quake-hit southwest as death toll hits 44

TOKYO — Japan’s southwestern Kumamoto and Oita prefectures were still reeling from two powerful quakes that rocked the region last week, triggering hundreds of aftershocks and killing 44 people.

The death toll rose on Tuesday as search and rescue personnel recovered the bodies of two people a day earlier who had been missing following a landslide in the the Kumamoto village of Minamiaso, while as many as eight people may still be unaccounted for, according to local officials.

The numbers of those injured by the quakes and related events has soared well past 1,000, officials figures also showed Tuesday.

The government said it will deliver emergency supplies of food totaling 900,000 food items including bread, rice, instant noodles and powdered milk to the worst-hit areas, as food shortages have been widely reported as worsening in emergency shelters and supermarkets.

Farm Minister Hiroshi Moriyama said around 1.8 million servings will be made available through Friday, to help alleviate the growing food crisis. This will double the amount of an initial emergency allocation.

A 6.5-magnitude quake rocked Kumamoto on Thursday and was followed by a more powerful 7.3-magnitude quake on Saturday, adding to the devastation and leveling houses and buildings already damaged by the foreshock. Along with heavy rain, the quekaes caused deadly landslides and saw roads cracked and in some cases entirely flooded.

The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) warned that both Kumamoto and Oita prefectures were showing no signs of seismic activity abating and aftershocks and subsequent earthquakes could strike in the region, reaching a level of lower 6 on Japan’s seismic scale that peaks at 7.

The JMA said such shocks could continue for at least a week, if not longer, as significant movement in a fault line that runs through the region has been noticed by seismologists. Since the first quake struck on Thursday, the weather agency said that more than 500 aftershocks have occurred in the disaster-hit regions.

More than 2,000 homes and buildings being destroyed in Kumamoto Prefecture alone, forcing 125,000 there and another 3,500 in Oita Prefecture to evacuate to emergency shelters, according to the latest figures from public broadcaster NHK Tuesday. Questions remained in the region as to when the evacuees will be able to return home, which highlights the government’s pledge for the affected regions to be restored and rehabilitated as quickly as possible.

Almost 90,000 homes in Kumamoto still do not have direct access to water and 11,000 are without electricity, as Defense Minister Gen Nakatani has accepted the help of the U.S. to help cope with the crisis with four controversial Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey being used to deliver some 20 tons of relief aid to some of the hardest- hit regions.

The use of the accident-prone tilt-rotor planes, which can take off and land like a helicopter but cruise like a regular plane, marks an unprecedented move by Japan’s defense ministry to use the contentious planes in a disaster situation.

Some of the locals in the quake-hit regions expressed concern that a crash or accident involving one of the planes would exacerbate an already disastrous situation, with others saying the planes were a painful reminder of the base-hosting burdens of their fellow countrymen on the tiny island of Okinawa, where many of the aircraft are based.

Due to the plane’s history of multiple crashes in other countries and “hard landings” some questioned why the defense ministry had not opted to solely use its own regular helicopters as has been the case in previous disasters in Japan.

The government, meanwhile, has said it did not want the evacuees to be displaced for a prolonged period of time and may make an extra budget available to provide fiscal means to accelerate the recovery of the battered regions.

Japan’s nuclear regulator, for its part, has tried to alleviate both domestic and international concerns about a Fukushima-type disaster occurring at nuclear facilities in the region if they are hit by another strong quake or aftershocks.

Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) officials said the two nuclear reactors currently online at the Sendai nuclear plant, located about 100 km south of Kumamoto, were showing no abnormal signs in the wake of the temblors and the force of the first two powerful quakes, as well as the largest of the aftershocks, were not of an intensity necessary to trigger an automatic shutdown.

The NRA added, while monitoring the ongoing situation at its plants, that there were no immediate plans to change the current anti-quake measures, stating that the plant’s defensive measures could accommodate a far more powerful quake.

The assessment was similar for three other nuclear power stations currently offline, yet also located in southwestern Japan. PNA/Xinhua/