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Is this the big one?

KUMAMOTO (SE): “Is this the big one?” a long time resident of Kumamoto City on the southern island of Kyushu in Japan said he thought to himself as his home shook violently at 1.25am on April 14.

He said that although it is not something at the front of his consciousness, the occasional reminder that Japan is an earthquake-prone country leaves the thought of the big earthquake lurking somewhere at the back of his mind and images of Kobe from the 1990s and Fukushima from 2011 are always there.

A 7.3 magnitude earthquake, with its epicentre just outside the city struck at a depth of about 10 kilometres as most of the city was asleep in the early hours of the morning, destroying some houses and causing landslides, leaving nine people dead.

“But then it mostly calmed down,” he said. “We still had water and electricity and a quick check of our home showed that no damage had been done.”

However, he said that since then, the city of around 730,000 people has been experiencing a continual series of mini aftershocks. “Sometimes the earth seems to be in perpetual motion,” he noted.

And worse was to come. Three days later, April 17, again in the small hours of the morning, a more violent shaking rocked the city and surrounding areas.

“We were asleep when everything started to rock. This time I thought this really is the big one,” he reflected. “We headed out into the street, where many of our neighbours had already gathered. This time the water supply did go off, although electricity in our area came back on after a while.”

Since then, he said that aftershocks have continued, but he feels blessed as his home is still in one piece and really the only inconvenience is a 30 minute trip to fetch water—a small price to pay for safety.

However, the continual aftershocks are a constant reminder that another big one could come at any minute.

Preliminary reports say that at least 18 people perished as a result of collapsed buildings and landslides during the second severe earthquake.

“The city is more or less closed down,” he noted. “Only some trains are running and the ones connecting it with other towns are not running. There are no busses and, being a car-dependent society, most roads are so clogged that it is impossible to go anywhere.”

However, he insisted that the worst of it is the continuation of the aftershocks. But once again, gratitude for life was a foremost emotion, as apart from those who lost their lives on that morning, over 1,000 suffered significant injuries.

The second big shaking of the earth affected a much wider area than the first, causing the Bullet Trains to stop running in most of Kyushu.

Kyushu houses around 20,000 troops from the Self-Defence Forces, many of whom have been deployed on disaster relief work.

Bishop Ryoji Miyahara, from Fukuoka, called a meeting of people from around the diocese on April 16 to plan a Church response to the disaster.

AsiaNews reported that rescuers continued the search for survivors throughout the day and night, adding that locals speak of dozens of people trapped in the rubble of buildings and debris from hillsides that collapsed on the morning of April 17.

At least 2,000 families lost electricity and experts were concerned about the weather, fearing the forecast rain could trigger new landslides.

Over 90,000 people were evacuated from districts that were considered to be particularly at risk.

Tomoyuki Tanaka, an official in Kumamoto Prefecture Office, reported that the death toll will increase as the hours pass and is set to worsen. Thousands of people spent the night on the streets and in the parks, outdoors, in the fear of new tremors.

Meanwhile, officials at nuclear power plants in Sendai were quick in announcing that there was no damage.

The earthquake did, however, trigger a small eruption at Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in the Land of the Rising Sun, as a result of the earthquake.

In the hours following the first earthquake, authorities placed the two nuclear reactors on the island of Kyushu under observation, but they really do not know if they have been damaged or not.

The focus remains on the power plants, for fear of any new accidents.

Japan is one of the most active seismic areas in the world. It is home to 205 of the total of all earthquakes each year with a magnitude of six or greater.

On average, the seismometres record activities, however slight, every five minutes. Consequently, buildings in the country have the highest seismic criteria in the world and over time, an effective warning system has been developed.

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