Rescuers were rushing to unearth survivors and restore power after a powerful earthquake jolted Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, buckling roads, knocking homes off their foundations and causing hillsides to collapse.
Residents in Sapporo were shaken from their beds when the magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck at 3.08am. At least seven people were confirmed dead and around 30 people were unaccounted for.
Japan is used to dealing with disasters, but the last few months have brought a string of calamities.
The quake came on the heels of a typhoon that triggered heavy flooding in western Japan and left the main airport near Osaka and Kobe closed after a tanker rammed a bridge connecting it to the mainland. The summer also brought floods from torrential rains in Hiroshima and extremely hot temperatures across the country.
Video cameras on Hokkaido showed cities going dark as the quake disabled power systems, leaving nearly 3 million households on the island without electricity.
The island’s only nuclear power plant, which was offline, switched to a backup generator to keep its spent fuel cool and nuclear regulators said there was no sign of abnormal radiation – a concern after a massive quake and tsunami in March 2011 that hit north-east Japan destroyed both external and backup power to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, causing meltdowns.
apan’s Meteorological Agency said the quake’s epicentre was 40km (24 miles) deep. But it still wreaked havoc across much of the relatively sparsely inhabited island.
Rescuers were using small backhoes and shovels to sift through the tons of soil, rocks and timber in hopes of finding survivors in the town of Atsuma, where steep mountainsides collapsed, crushing homes and farm buildings and leaving scores of brown gashes in the deep green hills.
Airports and many roads on the island were closed and trains were cancelled because of power outages. NHK showed workers rushing to clean up shattered glass and reinstall ceiling panels that had tumbled down in the region’s biggest airport at Chitose.
The prime minister, Shinzō Abe, said that up to 25,000 troops and other personnel would be dispatched to Hokkaido to help with rescue operations.