obihiro, Japan – Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido was slammed by a earthquake early Friday that injured at least 246 people, cut off electricity and water to thousands more, and set an oil storage tank ablaze in a spectacular ﬁre.
The magnitude-8 quake—the strongest anywhere in the world this year—forced the evacuation of some 41,000 people and left some 16,000 homes blacked out.
Almost miraculously, there were no reports of deaths directly caused by the quake, which struck at 4:50 am, cracking roads, capsizing ﬁshing boats and causing the roof of the airport in this city of 200,000 to partially cave in.
“We get a lot of quakes here, and I assumed it would end quickly,” said Fumiko Okuse, who owns a liquor store with her husband in the city of Kushiro, about 890 km northeast of Tokyo, which was believed to be the hardest hit. “But the shaking went on and on.”
Okuse said she immediately went to check on her store.
“Everything was thrown out of the refrigerators and all over the ﬂoor,” she said.
The quake was centered in the Paciﬁc about 100 km off Hokkaido’s eastern shore. It was followed by several strong aftershocks and small tsunami, ocean waves generated by seismic activity.
Hokkaido police spokesman Akihiro Ishikawa said 246 people were conﬁrmed injured as of noon, about seven hours after the quake. He said 18 were seriously hurt, mostly with broken bones.
Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, put the injury toll at 359.
Most of the injured escaped with bruises and cuts caused by glass from shattered windows and objects falling off of shelves.
Japan’s Central Meteorological Agency estimated the quake’s magnitude at 8. A powerful aftershock of magnitude 7 followed shortly after 6 am, and weaker quakes continued to shake the area throughout the day. The government warned residents to avoid coastal areas.
Because of the threat of tsunami, aftershocks or the collapse of already damaged buildings, 41,000 people were either evacuated from their homes to local shelters or had been advised to do so, according to Kazuhiko Kunii, a spokesman for the National Fire Agency.
A magnitude-8 quake can cause tremendous damage in populated areas. Damage In Hokkaido was eased by the quake’s offshore focus and sturdy Japanese building practices.
Even so, black plumes of smoke and ﬂames leapt from an oil tank belonging to Idemitsu Co. in the city of Tomakomai. The ﬁre was contained within three hours and there were no injuries. But ofﬁcials said 30,000 kiloliters, or 188,700 barrels, of crude oil was lost.
Elsewhere, cracks forced the closure of highways and damage to pipelines cut off water supplies. Hokkaido Electric Power Co. ofﬁcial Yoshihiro Akiyama said it was unclear when power could be restored to the blacked out homes, mostly in and around Kushiro.
Police said one person was injured when a local train carrying about 39 passengers derailed.
Nuclear power facilities on Hokkaido were not affected by the quake, which was centered about 42 kilometers (26 miles) under the seabed.
The quake was the largest to strike so far this year anywhere in the world, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
On average, there is one magnitude-8, or great, quake a year in the world, USGS geophysicist Brian Lassige said from Golden, Colorado. The amount of energy released in a magnitude-8 earthquake is equivalent to that contained in 1.01 billion tons of TNT, according to the USGS.
Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries. It sits atop four tectonic plates, slabs that move across the earth’s surface.
Earlier this month, Tokyo marked the 80th anniversary of a magnitude 8.3 quake that devastated the city and neighboring Yokohama, killing at least 140,000 people. In January 1995, a magnitude 7.2 temblor in Kobe killed more than 6,000 people.
Hokkaido is the northernmost and most sparsely populated of Japan’s major islands. Sapporo, which hosted the 1972 Olympics, is the prefecture’s capital.
A quake and tsunami on the western side of Hokkaido killed 230 people in July 1993, most on the nearby isle of Okushiri.