Quake in northern Japan kills 2, causes landslides, blackout

A police officer controls the traffic during a blackout following a strong earthquake in Sapporo, northern Japan early Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. A powerful earthquake struck the island of Hokkaido early Thursday. (Yu Nakajima / AP)
A section chief speaks at a press conference following a strong earthquake in northern Japan, at Japan Meteorological Agency in Tokyo Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. A powerful earthquake struck the island of Hokkaido. (松田優 / AP)

TOKYO – A powerful earthquake hit wide areas on Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido early Thursday, triggering landslides as well as causing the loss of power at nearly all of 3 million households and a nuclear power plant to go on a backup generator.

A Japanese government spokesman says two people have been confirmed dead. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the search was ongoing for those missing after the quake triggered dozens of landslides in the mountainous region near the epicenter.

Aerial footage showed slashes of brown earth on many heavily forested mountains, crushed homes and farm buildings and roads buried by avalanches of mud, logs and other debris.

The magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck southern Hokkaido at 3:08 a.m. Thursday at the depth of 24 miles, Japan’s Meteorological Agency said. No tsunami warning was issued.

The quake’s epicenter was east of the city of Tomakomai. It also struck Hokkaido’s prefectural capital of Sapporo, with a population of 1.9 million.

Footage on NHK national television showed the moment the quake struck Muroran, with its camera violently shaking and all city lights going out a moment later. In nearby Sapporo, a mudslide hit a road, leaving several cars half buried.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko told reporters that the extensive power outage was caused by an emergency shutdown of the main thermal power plant that supply half of the electricity to all of Hokkaido.

Utility officials are starting up hydro-power plants to help restart the main thermal plant, Seko said. Authorities are sending power-generator vehicles to hospitals so they can accept emergency patients when needed, he said.

In the town of Atsuma, a massive landslide occurred on the side of a mountain, crushing houses at lower grounds.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference that the authorities have received hundreds of calls about people missing and buildings collapsing. Officials are doing their utmost for the search and rescue while they assess the extent of damage, he said.

The central government set up a crisis management taskforce at the prime minister’s Office.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a taskforce meeting that 4,000 self-defense troops are being deployed on Hokkaido to join search and rescue operations. The government will send 20,000 more to the affected sites, he said.

Three reactors at the Tomari nuclear plant were offline, but they are running on backup generators after losing external power because of the island-wide blackouts that also caused power loss at all 2.9 million households and disrupted traffic, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority said. Spent fuel in storage pools was safely cooled on backup power that can last for a week, the agency said.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan destroyed both external and backup power to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, causing meltdowns.

The earthquake also affected telephone service and television broadcasting in Sapporo.