Fierce quakes leave thousands of Japanese in shelters

By ERIC TALMADGE

The Associated Press

OJIYA, Japan – Yoshikazu Ogawa stood outside the pile of rubble that was once his home, poking around the plaster and wood that had suddenly come crashing down on his two minivans when a series of earthquakes hit northern Japan, killing at least 23 people and injuring some 2,000.

“We've got nothing,” he said Sunday, one day after a magnitude 6.8 quake flattened his home and neighborhood in Ojiya, a town of 40,000 about 160 miles northwest of Tokyo. “Our house is destroyed. We have no electricity, no toilet, no telephone.”

Like some 64,000 other people, Ogawa said he and his family planned to spend the night in one of hundreds of makeshift evacuation centers – school gymnasiums, parking lots, even street corners – set up in the region as officials struggle to restore its battered lifelines.

Early Monday, a 5.6-magnitude aftershock hit the region, jolting survivors huddled in makeshift emergency shelters. It hit near Ojiya, the epicenter of Saturday's temblor. No damage or injuries were immediately reported.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged that the government would set aside funding for reconstruction. But officials estimated it would take weeks to rebuild roads, bridges and homes and restore essential services.

The quake hit just after sunset Saturday as many people were sitting down to dinner in the scattered towns and rice paddy-ringed villages in Niigata state on the northwestern coast of Japan's main island.

Several strong quakes followed through the night as a near-total blackout enveloped about 280,000 households, and aftershocks continued jolting the area Sunday.

The Japanese government said 23 people were killed and 1,232 were injured. The dead included five children, the youngest a 2-month-old infant.

The injured overwhelmed local hospitals, where patients were being treated in the hallways. Saturday's quake also flattened dozens of homes, tore through the pavement of local roads and highways and caused landslides that left whole villages cut off from the outside world.

Two trains derailed, but no injuries were reported. One was a bullet train, the first to jump its tracks since Japan began running such trains in 1964.

Military helicopters airlifted stranded villagers from a riverside hamlet, Shiotani, that was cut off when the bridge connecting it to Ojiya was toppled. Several other villages were isolated, including Yamagoshi, a mountain village of 600, where a landslide swept away the only road and upended homes and cars. Residents awaited airlifted food and other supplies.

“Carrying out rescue efforts is the most important task right now,” Tsutomu Takebe, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said on a talk program aired by NHK. “The government is making all the effort to assess the extent of the damage.”

The quake was the most devastating to strike Japan since 1995, when more than 6,000 were killed in the port city of Kobe.

“We were completely isolated,” said Takejiro Hoshino, who was evacuated by military helicopter along with dozens of others from Shioya, a small mountain hamlet. Hoshino was uninjured, but his 12-year-old grandson was killed when their home collapsed.

Attesting to the power of the quake, the cement tubing of a manhole had been driven upward and stood some 3 feet above the surrounding pavement on a street near one flattened home. Power lines sagged to the ground from teetering utility poles.

Japan's Meteorological Agency registered 309 aftershocks – most too weak to be felt – and warned that another temblor of similar power could hit the region over the next week.

“We came here because we were afraid to stay home,” said Mamie Otani, a housewife who, along with her 1-year-old daughter, mother-in-law and several neighbors, had camped out on the floor of the city hall in nearby Nagaoka. “It's exhausting. But at least it's warm.”

With most areas still not getting electricity or water, many residents were expecting a long haul – and were buying up supplies wherever they could be found.

Dozens of people lined up outside one of the few shops in this hard-hit city on Sunday, a home-and-garden center strewn with the shards of broken ceramic flower pots and toppled plants. Most bought plastic containers for water, bottles of tea and gas cooking stoves.

“The roads to my house are closed, so I might be living in my car for a while,” Tomoaki Watanabe said. “I figured I'd better get supplies while I still can.”

The temblors came just days after Japan's deadliest typhoon in more than a decade left 79 people dead and a dozen missing.

Japan, which rests atop several tectonic plates, is among the world's most earthquake-prone countries. A magnitude 6 quake can cause widespread damage to homes and other buildings if centered in a heavily populated area.

The last big quake to shake Niigata prefecture was a magnitude 7.5 temblor in 1964 that left 26 dead and 447 hurt, a Meteorological Agency spokeswoman said.