MINAMIASO, Japan, April 19, (Agencies): Searchers digging in a mountainous area of southern Japan where twin earthquakes triggered landslides found another body Tuesday, raising the likely death toll to 45. Some 100,000 evacuees, some sleeping outdoors or in their cars, endured chilly weather and another large aftershock overnight that hit the southern island of Kyushu, near the city of Kumamoto. Several soldiers carried the body down on a plastic tray covered with an olive-green tarp.
Dozens of rescue workers continued to dig through the site where a mudslide is believed to have buried several people. Two other bodies were found late Monday. At least one appeared to be among the nine reported missing near the town of Minamiaso, according to Japanese media reports. The official death toll stood at 44, awaiting confirmation of the latest death. After daybreak, Japanese broadcaster NHK showed people squatting at the curbside outside an evacuation center to brush their teeth with water from a green garden hose.
The temperature was forecast to rise to 23ºC (73ºF) during the day, but fall to 8ºC (46ºF) Tuesday night. Food and water shortages are plaguing the recovery effort, even as the search for the missing goes on in Minamiaso. US airlifts delivered water, bread, ready-to-eat food and other emergency supplies to the remote area of southern Japan stricken by the two powerful earthquakes. Limited flights also resumed to Kumamoto Airport on Tuesday, but outbound passenger flights remain suspended because the terminal building is too damaged to handle security checks.
Nine people died in the first, magnitude 6.4 earthquake on Thursday night, and at least 36 in the second quake early Saturday morning, which registered 7.3. Authorities said about 1,100 were injured. An aftershock with magnitude 5.8 hit the area Monday evening but no further injuries were reported.
Minamiaso, a town of 12,000, was partly cut off by landslides and road and bridge damage. Residents marked their location with chairs aligned in a giant “SOS” while awaiting the US relief flights, which also delivered tents and portable toilets and waste treatment kits. The flights by two MV-22 Ospreys were a gesture of cooperation between the two allies and a chance for the US military to demonstrate the utility of the tilt-rotor aircraft, whose deployment has raised controversy in Japan due to safety concerns.
The US has about 50,000 troops stationed in Japan, and the American military played a large role in rescue and relief in 2011 after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the northeastern coast of the main island of Honshu. Tatsuyuki Aramaki, 60, was among local residents who came from a nearby evacuation center to see the Ospreys’ arrival. It was “hugely appreciated,” Aramaki said. “We have been living on rock-hard biscuits, old rice balls and bread,” he said. “I heard Ospreys were coming to deliver supplies for us so I had to come and see. I couldn’t wait.” The tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey flies like an airplane but can take off and land like a helicopter, making it suited for mountainous areas like Minamiaso, said Lt Yuichiro Inoue of the Japanese army. The US military operates 24 Ospreys in the southernmost islands of Okinawa, where most of its Japanbased troops are stationed.
The aircraft have been vehemently criticized by local residents already unhappy over the large US presence there. Crashes of Ospreys have raised concerns over their safety, though the US military says they are safe. Yachiyo Fuchigami, 64, suffered a broken arm when a bookshelf fell on her during the second earthquake. The first quake caused more damage in another, less remote city, Mashiki. “The second earthquake caught us by surprise,” she said. “We survived the first one and were watching the scenes in Mashiki on TV. I never thought we were going to be next.”
Disruptions from damage to buildings and roads, and from outages of electricity and water supplies, were reverberating beyond Kyushu as manufacturers suspended output. Toyota Motor Corp is shutting most of its vehicle production in Japan over the course of this week because of parts shortages stemming from the earthquakes. Nissan Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co also temporarily halted production at some facilities.
With some quake evacuees complaining of having only rice balls and bread to eat, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe defended his government’s handling of the crisis. “We are doing our best,” Abe told lawmakers when challenged by the opposition over the government’s relief efforts. “We are striving to improve living conditions for the people who have sought refuge.” Japan has resorted to opening a prison to those left homeless by two deadly earthquakes, officials said Tuesday, highlighting the challenges of dealing with tens of thousands who have fled their homes.
Many who abandoned their damaged or destroyed homes have had to sleep in temporary accommodation, huddle in makeshift shelters or even sleep in their cars, and local media have reported problems in delivering food and other essentials as well as raising health concerns. More than 95,000 people were still in evacuation shelters, a spokeswoman for the Kumamoto prefectural government, told AFP, about 20,000 less than earlier in the day. The figure does not include those staying with friends or family or in places other than official shelters. Justice Ministry official Koichi Shima told AFP that a prison in the hard-hit city of Kumamoto has accommodated as many as 250 people at a time in the correctional facility’s martial arts training hall