A powerful earthquake struck off the coast of southern Japan on Sunday, killing an elderly woman and injuring at least 400 people, damaging buildings and prompting authorities to evacuate half the residents of a tiny island near the epicenter.
The magnitude-7.0 temblor, which hit west of Kyushu Island at 10:53 a.m., was centered at an unusually shallow depth of 5.5 miles below the ocean floor, the Japanese Meteorological Agency said. At least one aftershock with a magnitude of 4.2 was recorded.
Minutes after the shaking began, the agency warned of the possibility of 20-inch tsunami waves triggered by the seismic activity. Such waves can grow to towering heights as they approach land, and authorities cautioned residents near the water to move to higher ground. But the agency withdrew the warning after about an hour.
“There may be some disturbance of the ocean’s surface, but we aren’t worried about tsunami damage,” said Masahiro Yamamoto of the Meteorological Agency. He predicted strong aftershocks measuring up to magnitude-6 would continue.
Landslides on Genkai island
The worst damage occurred nearest the quake’s epicenter, on Genkai island, where the shaking touched off landslides and leveled homes. About 120 Japanese troops flew to the tiny island just west of Kyushu to offer food and medical aid, and help evacuate more than 400 of the 850 residents to neighboring Kyushu.
In Fukuoka prefecture on Kyushu, 560 miles southwest of Tokyo, water and gas pipes burst, hundreds of homes reported power outages and landslides reportedly triggered a safety mechanism that halted local and bullet train service.
The tremors also set off landslides in parts of Saga and Nagasaki prefectures, public broadcaster NHK television reported.
A 75-year-old woman, who was hospitalized after a wall fell on her in Fukuoka city, had died, according to the Kyodo News agency.
At least 400, most in hardest-hit Fukuoka prefecture, were injured by the quake, NHK reported. Some were struck by toppling cabinets, items falling off shelves or shattered glass, and two were burned by a stove.
Authorities in Fukuoka confirmed 107 injuries, 15 serious, according to the prefectural government’s Web site. Ten people in neighboring Saga prefecture were injured, a prefectural government official said.
In Saga prefecture’s Okawa city, a 56-year-old man suffered broken bones after trying to jump to safety from the second floor of his home, NHK said. One person was reportedly rescued after being pinned inside a collapsed home.
“We have had frightened residents coming to the store because their own homes are shaking with every aftershock,” said Shigeru Harada, a manager at a convenience store in Fukuoka city.
'Ring of Fire' prone to quakes
Located along the Pacific Ocean’s seismically active “Ring of Fire,” Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries.
It is also one of the best prepared for a major quake. Tough requirements making buildings quake-safe and frequent disaster drills likely kept injuries and structural damage to a minimum in Sunday’s temblor.
About 100 residents of Genkai, a tiny island off the coast of Kyushu, evacuated collapsed homes and other damaged buildings, and eight people were airlifted to hospitals on the main island of Kyushu, NHK said. Prefectural officials requested help from Japanese troops, but landslides of topsoil and rocks loosened by the quake were hobbling emergency response efforts.
A Fukuoka prefectural police spokesman said the initial jolt, which lasted about 30 seconds, made it difficult to stand.
NHK showed tall office buildings and street lamps in the center of Fukuoka, nearest the epicenter, shaking violently. In residential areas, cracks appeared in sidewalks and parts of retaining walls flaked off.
Authorities warned of landslides around Fukuoka, Saga and Nagasaki prefectures.
Kyushu Island is separated from South Korea by a narrow strait of water, and the quake was felt about 130 miles away in South Korea’s port city of Busan, where it briefly shook buildings. No damage was immediately reported, a police spokesman in Busan said.
A magnitude-7 quake can cause tremendous damage in populated areas, either directly or by triggering tsunami, which are distinguished from normal coastal surf by their great length and speed.
On Oct. 23, a magnitude-6.8 earthquake struck Niigata, about 160 miles northwest of Tokyo, killing 40 people and damaging more than 6,000 homes. The jolt was the deadliest to hit Japan since 1995, when a magnitude-7.3 quake killed 6,433 people in the western city of Kobe.
On Dec. 26, a 9.0-magnitude quake triggered a massive tsunami that devastated Asian and African coastlines in nearly a dozen nations, killing at least 175,000 people.