Monster quake leaves Japan unscathed

The two earthquakes struck within days of each other, unleashing roughly the same devastating power. The killer quake in Algeria left thousands dead. Its counterpart in Japan left hardly a scratch.

Monday’s quake in northern Japan was estimated at a potentially disastrous magnitude 7 on the Richter scale.
But its aftermath of only minor injuries and cracked plaster underscored how readiness and good luck helped Japan temper the carnage seen in other quake zones.

When Pachinko Dynamite in downtown Sendai lurched from side to side and then jolted up and down, for example, hard core fans kept pumping coins into the pinball-style gambling machines under the haze of cigarette smoke.

“It was the biggest earthquake I’ve ever experienced,” said manager Yoshiki Okada. “But most people kept playing like nothing had happened.”

The reaction underscores the business-as-usual calm felt in this city of 1,2-million, only hours after being rocked by the biggest earthquake to hit Japan in more than two years, and the biggest in most locals’ memories.

But it also spotlights the chaos triggered in Algeria, where angry mobs were still hurling debris and insults at the country’s president for not doing more to help victims of the 6,8 magnitude quake that struck there last Wednesday.

Experts say Japan has a lot in its favour, such as detailed emergency plans and high-grade construction standards, to help avert catastrophe.

But they also chalked up Monday’s relatively innocuous earthquake to good luck, and warned that Japan—notoriously susceptible to quakes and whose crowded capital is well overdue for the Big One—may not be so lucky next time.

Minor temblors continued to shake northeastern Japan on Tuesday, more than 12 hours after the initial earthquake set off landslides, causing a temporary blackout in 35 000 households and leaving more than 100 people injured.

The quake shook buildings in Tokyo, hundreds of kilometers away from the epicenter. But life was quickly back to normal in Sendai, about 300km northeast of the capital and the largest urban center in the quake area.

Though there was still a fear of landslides and traffic remained snarled, the impact of the quake was surprisingly small.

Police said 104 people were hurt, but most of the injuries were minor and none were believed to be life-threatening.

“It was scary, we were lucky there was no damage,” said Noriko Fujimoto (25) who was back at work as usual in a coffee shop near the train station here.

Experts said the depth of the epicentre was key.

“The biggest reason it didn’t cause so much damage was because it occurred at a very deep spot, about 70km underground,” said Yoshimitsu Okada, a seismologist at the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention.

“If it had been shallower,” he said, “it could have been a major disaster.”

A magnitude 7 quake can cause major damage over a widespread area. More than 6 000 people were killed in the western city of Kobe when a magnitude7,2 quake struck there in 1995.

The devastating earthquake that rocked northern Algeria last week, killing at least 2 047 people, was actually weaker than the one that hit here. The Algeria quake was estimated at a magnitude 6,8 but it was focused just 10km underground.

Kazuo Tanaka, section chief of Sendai’s 31-member disaster reaction task force, also said Algeria’s aging or shoddily built homes were more likely to crumble in a quake, pushing up death tolls from a quake that Japan’s modern buildings could better weather.

“We’ve got a lot of experience with earthquakes and have built that into our lives,” Tanaka said.

From childhood, all Japanese are drilled on basic earthquake safety points, such as turning off the gas, watching out for falling roof tiles and being prepared for tsunami, the earthquake-induced waves that can sweep away cities.

On Monday, police, fire departments and local governments immediately established emergency disaster headquarters, and the few fires that broke out after the quake were quickly extinguished.

Water and electricity outages were generally fixed within a few hours, and most bars and restaurants remained open as usual.

Still, the quake has renewed concerns about the future.

Seismologists believe Tokyo, which was devastated by a quake in 1923, is due for another one at any time. Along with the potential loss of lives, such a quake now would likely have a huge impact on the world economy, as Tokyo is a major financial center and is home to one of its biggest stock markets.

In March, the Japanese government estimated that about 10 000 people would die and 250 000 homes would be destroyed if a magnitude 8 earthquake stuck central Japan.

A big earthquake generally hits that region every 100 to 200 years, and a magnitude 8,4 temblor last struck the area in 1854, killing 2 658 people.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, a 6,4 magnitude earthquake rocked remote Morotai island in northeastern Indonesia, killing a 3-year-old boy and damaging more than 100 homes, officials said. - Sapa-AP

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