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DISASTER MANAGEMENT
Social networks offer comfort, confusion in Japan quake
By Shingo ITO
Tokyo (AFP) April 17, 2016


Japan twin quakes turned hills into deadly cascades of mud
Mashiki, Japan (AFP) April 17, 2016 - When powerful -- and shallow -- twin earthquakes struck southern Japan barely 24 hours apart, the verdant hills that gracefully dominate the landscape turned into deadly cascades of mud.

Thousands of tonnes of soil and rock crashed through villages and across highways, severing transport links and crushing houses as people slept.

At least 41 people died in the double disaster, many killed by falling debris as Saturday's 7.0 magnitude quake finished off what a smaller tremor had started late Thursday.

Others suffocated when torrents of earth buried their homes.

From the air, the scale of the devastation becomes apparent; huge hillsides just gave way and great fissures opened up in the ground, swallowing roads, car parks and buildings.

Even where the mud did not reach, the fury of the quake wreaked ruin on the picturesque towns and villages of Kumamoto prefecture on Kyushu island, an area known for its natural beauty and dominated by Mount Aso, Japan's largest active volcano.

Two historic tourist spots suffered -- the 250-year-old main gate of Aso Shrine collapsed, as did a stone wall at Kumamoto castle, a stronghold that survived rebellions and attacks by warring samurai in centuries past.

Traditional-style Japanese houses were the worst hit -- their delicately-curved slate roofs smashed and their wooden frames splintered.

In Mashiki, homes that had been in families for generations were simply ripped apart by the violence the quake unleashed; their upper floors crashing down when cedar-wood support columns snapped.

For the residents who escaped, the damage to their property was low down their list of worries.

"I am so glad that we are alive now. That is all," Kenji Shiroshita, 48, told AFP after standing in line for rice and water at the town hall.

Shiroshita said Thursday's initial 6.2 magnitude quake had been frightening in an area unused to the powerful tremors that rattle other parts of Japan.

But the rapid restoration of the power supply had lulled him into a false sense of security.

"I never expected the second one because the electricity was back on and there were cars on the roads. I was totally off guard," he said.

Saturday's quake -- which felled modern buildings constructed to Japan's high seismic safety standards -- was what really scared Naomi Ueda.

She had slept in her car in front of her shattered house after Thursday's jolt, but now does not dare go anywhere near it.

"After the second quake hit, a big condominium by my house cracked, and it now looks like it could fall over at any time," she said.

"I cannot even park my car near my house any more."

For Kazuki Fujimoto, the continuing aftershocks -- there had been more than 400 by Sunday afternoon -- were a constant worry.

"The radio and television keep saying it could happen again," he said.

"My house is barely standing now, but if another one comes it may completely collapse. So I just cannot go home."

People trapped under buildings that collapsed in Japan's double earthquakes used social media to chat to friends and keep their spirits up while they awaited rescue, reports said Sunday.

Networking apps like Line and Facebook proved a boon to victims of the powerful quakes that brought down homes, bridges and hillsides -- but they were also conduits for racist scaremongering and rumours about escaped zoo animals.

One family of seven found themselves buried under debris after a 7.0-magnitude quake felled their home, barely 24 hours after the first major tremor had rocked southern Kumamoto prefecture.

Hiroki Nishimura told Sports Nippon daily he and his family were sleeping in their hometown of Mashiki when Saturday's quake struck, bringing the roof crashing in and leaving them with just 30 centimetres (12 inches) of space.

The 19-year-old university student said he had been able to reach his smartphone and had fired up Line, a South Korean-owned instant messaging app.

He said he had sent messages to his friends explaining his predicament and telling them where he was.

"Everybody sent them round through other social networking apps and we got messages back that really cheered us up under there," he told the Sports Nippon.

An hour after the collapse, he and his family had been rescued and were at an evacuation centre.

At least 41 people are known to have died in the double quakes, which sparked enormous landslides that sent tonnes of mud and rocks crashing through settlements.

Up to 11 people are still missing, and there are fears of further mudslides after heavy overnight rain and with continuing aftershocks.

- Lion escape -

In picturesque Minami Aso, employees of the Seifusou hot spring hotel kept the venue's Facebook page updated with information about 50 guests and staff who were cut off when landslides severed roads.

"The windows are shattered and the walls cracked," they wrote on the hotel's official Facebook page on Saturday.

"Our supplies, especially water and food, will run out in a day," they wrote, uploading a picture showing guests in the hotel parking lot, where they had erected a makeshift shelter using blue plastic sheets.

Later, as troops brought in a helicopter to evacuate them, the Facebook page was updated to show the staff's relief.

"Herewith a rescue! Guests first. We're breathing easily," it said.

But in amongst the messages of hope, there was also a darker side to social media.

"Because of the quake, a lion escaped from the nearby zoo," user @Nanahosi1222 tweeted, along with a picture of the animal. The account was later deleted.

A similar tweet indicating the escape of a gorilla also made the rounds.

There were no reports of animals escaping from zoos in Kyushu in the wake of the disaster.

Another tweet claimed "Koreans" were poisoning water supplies in Kumamoto, the Sankei Shimbun reported on its website.

That tweet, which was not immediately accessible, was a modern-day echo of the rumours that spread in the aftermath of the 1923 earthquake that levelled large parts of Tokyo, which led to the lynching of scores of ethnic Koreans.

si/hg/cah

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