Mashiki (Japan) (AFP) – 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.”