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Japan Quickens Resue Missions After Deadly Earthquake


We're following earthquake activity on two continents today, a major one in rural Ecuador last night that we're still just getting initial reports on and two devastating quakes over the last few days in Japan where they're struggling to find survivors. The prime minister there, Shinzo Abe, said rescuers are in a race against the clock as bad weather has made a dangerous situation even worse. Reporter John Matthews joins us now just outside Tokyo via Skype. John, thanks for being with us.

JOHN MATTHEWS, BYLINE: I'm very happy to be here.

MARTIN: What do you know about how the rescues are going?

MATTHEWS: They're getting trickier and trickier by the day. Last night was the big challenge. There was very, very heavy rain overnight which complicated things. It's a very mountainous area in southwestern Japan, Kumamoto and Oita Prefectures, which is a part of the southwestern main island of Japan. And as the rains intensify, landslides get worse. Landslides get worse, more people are trapped. More people are trapped, it's harder to find them.

MARTIN: Japan gets a lot of earthquakes, no?

MATTHEWS: On the Ring of Fire, that's something you kind of have to expect.

MARTIN: This is significant in that you're talking about doing these rescues in these difficult conditions. Do you know any more about what the extent of the damage has been to the infrastructure and otherwise?

MATTHEWS: I don't know. I couldn't give you exact numbers on how many buildings have come down or how much has been destroyed. I can tell you that a lot are under evacuation. The - both of the prefectures have a total population of about three million. And about 170,000 of those, if not more at this point, I believe, are under evacuation orders. So the threat is not insignificant to people. A lot of these areas are hard to access as well. So if one road is out from a landslide - which there are 50-plus places where there are landslides right now in these two regions - then even reaching - they're basically the self-defense forces, Japan's version of the National Guard, has to send helicopters to pick these people up and rescue.

MARTIN: Of course, we all remember the earthquake in 2011 that caused the nuclear power plant at Fukushima to melt down. That quake was a magnitude nine. Are these quakes going to complicate that recovery which is still ongoing?

MATTHEWS: Geographically, no, not a chance because they're very far away. Kumamoto to Tokyo is about 500 miles - 550 miles-ish (ph). And you have to go another few hundred miles north to get to the Fukushima Daiichi Plant and to Sendai and to all the areas that were affected and hit by the tsunami, which, by the way, that was the bigger cause of devastation than - more so than the earthquake. The tsunami is what killed so many people. I mean, you're talking death toll about 10,000. We're looking at 40, 41 I think was the last number I saw for southwest Japan. There was no tsunami, which is, without question, a blessing in this case.

MARTIN: Did you feel this earthquake in Tokyo?

MATTHEWS: The initial earthquake was a 6.4 on Thursday. And then we had the 7.3 late, late Friday night, early Saturday, about 1:30 in the morning. We felt both of those in Tokyo, about 500 miles away. But it wasn't - it - we knew something - we all knew that something had hit somewhere. But when you're in one location, you don't exactly know where it hit or how strong it was until we actually saw the news.

MARTIN: Any sense on how the government has responded, whether or not the population feels like the government is responding in a quick and efficient manner to this latest earthquake?

MATTHEWS: Well, put it this way. It's been how may days now? Three. Almost, I think, three hours - 72 hours, excuse me - since the earthquake happened. Criticism might come later on. Right now people are trying to stay alive and trying to be rescued right now.

There are 25,000 troops that should be on the ground in the next day or so. I think there are already 20,000 right now, so they're upping that in the next day or so. So there is a response, and the response is very vocal from the government. The prime minister's office is always very vocal about responding to disasters. So we might see criticism down the road, but I haven't heard anything big right now.

MARTIN: Reporter John Matthews on the line from Tokyo. Thanks so much for talking with us.

MATTHEWS: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.