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Death toll from powerful quake rises to 16 in northern Japan

SAPPORO (Kyodo) -- The death toll in Hokkaido grew to 16 on Friday after a magnitude-6.7 earthquake struck Japan's northernmost main island the previous day, and it is feared it will rise further with the government reporting 26 people are still missing.

    Police, firefighters and Self-Defense Forces personnel used heavy machinery and manually combed through rubble in the town of Atsuma where massive landslides buried a number of homes. All of the missing people were located in Atsuma, according to the government.

    The quake, which left over 300 other people injured, caused a prefecture-wide blackout Thursday.

    The industry ministry said power has since been returned to 1.4 million households, about half of the total affected, and is expected to be restored to another 1 million homes later in the day, but it may take about a week until supply is fully re-established.

    Water supplies were also cut in many areas, affecting some 42,700 households at its peak, but the figure has since dropped to 38,300 as of 5:30 a.m. Friday, according to the health ministry.

    The ministry also said 376 hospitals were without power and 82 were without water.

    Over 6,400 people were forced to stay overnight at evacuation centers in the prefectural capital of Sapporo, while more than 100 residents of hard-hit Atsuma took refuge at a shelter adjacent to the town office.

    "I have been living in Atsuma all my life but I have never experienced such a quake. I came here because I am scared of aftershocks," said 79-year-old Toyokazu Kurashige, who was staying at the evacuation center with five family members.

    The town's evacuees slept under blankets on thin mattresses in an open space without any partitions. The shelter had no water service.

    Some women were seen helping members of the Ground Self-Defense Force and the local chamber of commerce in the morning to prepare 1,000 rice balls to be distributed to seven shelters in the town.

    The earthquake registered the highest reading of 7 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale in Atsuma and upper 6 in the neighboring town of Abira, both southeast of Sapporo. Smaller aftershocks have continued in the prefecture.

    Transportation is slowly becoming available in the region, with some train and air services expected to resume during the day.

    Hokkaido Railway Co. said it is restarting its bullet train services to and from Hakodate around noon, but canceled its express trains for the day. Transport minister Keiichi Ishii said local trains linking JR Sapporo Station and New Chitose Airport will resume around 1 p.m.

    New Chitose Airport also resumed services for domestic flights to and from the main gateway to Hokkaido, although many people were unable to secure seats.

    "I was told all the flights are booked. I've done everything I can but there is no way I can get out of Hokkaido," said Masahiro Torimoto, 49, who was scheduled to travel to Fukuoka, southwestern Japan, to take part in a national softball tournament.

    Already more than 100 flights to and from the airport on Friday have been canceled, affecting more than 17,000 people, according to airlines.

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