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Damage from mega quake increasing, death toll feared to top 1,700

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In photo taken on March 12, 2011, people wait to be rescued from building rooftops in the city of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, where houses have been swept away by tsunami following a catastrophic earthquake in Japan the previous day.

Damage caused by Friday’s catastrophic earthquake in Japan expanded Saturday, with the combined number of people who have died or are unaccounted for is feared to top 1,700, while an explosion occurred at the nuclear reactor building of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and injured four workers.

The four are conscious and their injuries are not life-threatening, according to the electricity firm, while the Fire and Disaster Management Agency dispatched the Hyper Rescue squad from Tokyo to bring equipment to cool down the nuclear plant facilities.

Radioactive materials — cesium and iodine — were also detected around the No. 1 reactor of the plant, according to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The death toll has exceeded 600 so far, a police tally showed, while 200 to 300 bodies were transferred to Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. It was also reported that another 200 bodies were transferred to gymnasiums in Iwanuma and Natori, both in Miyagi, while around 650 people are missing following the 2:46 p.m. quake with a magnitude of 8.8, the strongest ever recorded in Japan.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano on Saturday expressed the government’s determination to bring relief to the disaster-hit areas. He told a meeting of the emergency disaster headquarters Saturday, ”This is the largest earthquake since the Meiji Era, and it is believed that more than 1,000 people have lost their lives.”

Following the explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant, Edano said the government instructed residents living within a 10-kilometer radius of the No. 1 and No. 2 nuclear plants to evacuate, but it later expanded the evacuation scope of the No. 1 and No. 2 plant to a 20-kilometer radius.

The total number of evacuees near the nuclear plant plus around 210,000 people evacuated in five prefectures, including Iwate and Fukushima, at the time when strong aftershocks continued, reached 300,000, according to the National Police Agency.

The Defense Ministry said a special unit of the Ground Self-Defense Force and the nuclear safety agency are jointly monitoring radioactive substances around the No. 1 reactor of the No. 1 plant.

Fires in residential areas continued, with Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture experiencing three large-scale fires.

The number of partially or completely destroyed buildings has now reached some 3,400, with the number of fires that hit quake-affected areas totaling about 200, according to the fire agency. Meanwhile, the welfare ministry said 181 welfare facilities, including nursing homes, have been damaged.

In Iwate Prefecture, the coastal city of Rikuzentakata was virtually destroyed by a tidal wave, with almost all the city submerged, the local police said. Tsunami reached as high as the third floor of the city hall, and only a few buildings remained in the urban area.

The coastal area of Miyako City and almost all of the town of Yamada, both in Iwate, were also submerged.

Around 1,800 houses in Fukushima Prefecture were found to have been destroyed, according to the National Police Agency.

As rescue officials have not been able to access the tsunami-hit areas as tsunami warnings are still in effect, the overall picture of the destruction remains unclear.

A municipal official of the town of Futaba in Fukushima Prefecture said, ”More than 90 percent of the houses in three coastal communities have been washed away by tsunami. Looking from the fourth floor of the town hall, I see no houses standing.”

Kan inspected the quake-hit Fukushima nuclear plant by helicopter on Saturday morning and visited the nuclear plant. He told an executive of Tokyo Electric Power, ”I hope measures (to support the neighboring residents) will be taken at an early stage.”

In the quake-hit areas, around 5.57 million households had lost power as of Saturday morning, while more than 1 million households in 18 prefectures had had their water supply cut off.

Kan said the government has decided to dispatch 50,000 Self-Defense Force officers to the quake-areas for rescue operations.

On Saturday morning, meanwhile, several strong quakes, one with a magnitude of 6.7 at 3:59 a.m., rocked an inland area on the Sea of Japan coast northwest of Tokyo, hitting Nagano and Niigata prefectures.

Saturday’s first predawn quake, which originated at a depth of 10 km in Niigata’s Chuetsu region, measured upper-6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale in Nagano Prefecture, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

The agency said it could not rule out the possibility that the latest quake was triggered by Friday’s quake.

Four trains running in a coastal area of Miyagi and Iwate prefectures became unaccounted for after tsunami triggered by Friday’s earthquake hit the area, the train operator said Saturday.

While it is not known how many people were aboard the trains that were running on East Japan Railway Co.’s Ofunato, Senseki and Kesennuma lines on the Pacific coast, several passengers and crew members were rescued.

JR East said, meanwhile, it expects to continue the suspension of bullet train services on the Tohoku, Yamagata and Akita Shinkansen lines through Saturday, while resuming train operations in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Nine expressways were closed as of Saturday, while at least 464 domestic flights were cancelled.

The quake has imposed troubles also on manufacturing sector, with Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. planning to suspend production at all their domestic plants on Monday due to difficulties in procuring auto parts.

The quake measured the highest level of 7 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale in northern Miyagi, upper-6 in the rest of Miyagi and part of Fukushima, Ibaraki and Tochigi prefectures, lower-6 in part of Iwate, Fukushima, Gunma, Saitama and Chiba prefectures, and upper-5 in a wider area including central Tokyo, and part of Kanagawa and Yamanashi prefectures.

The Tokyo police said more than 120,000 people in the capital were unable to return home Friday evening due to the suspension of train operations and because of traffic jams.

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