U.S. forces deliver aid to Japanese quake-hit areas; 44 dead

MINAMIASO, Japan — About 100,000 evacuees, some sleeping outdoors or in their cars, endured chilly weather Tuesday and another large aftershock as the death toll from Japan’s twin earthquakes rose to 44.

Searchers digging through landslide and building debris in a mountainous area found two bodies Monday. At least one appeared to be among the nine reported missing, according to Japanese media reports.

After daybreak Tuesday, Japanese broadcaster NHK showed people squatting at the curbside outside an evacuation center to brush their teeth with water coming out of a green garden hose.

Food and water shortages are plaguing the recovery effort, even as the search for the missing goes on in the mountain town of Minamiaso.

U.S. airlifts delivered water, bread, ready-to-eat food and other emergency supplies to a the remote area of southern Japan stricken by the two powerful earthquakes.

Authorities said at least 44 people died and about 1,100 were injured in the quakes on Thursday and early Saturday. An aftershock with magnitude 5.8 hit the area Monday evening but no further injuries were reported.

The flights by two MV-22 Ospreys were a gesture of cooperation between the two allies and a chance for the U.S. military to demonstrate the utility of the tilt-rotor aircraft, whose deployment has raised controversy in Japan due to safety concerns.

Limited flights also resumed to Kumamoto Airport on Tuesday, but outbound flights remain suspended because the terminal building is too damaged to handle security checks.

Minamiaso, a town of 12,000 on the southern island of Kyushu, was partly cut off by landslides and road and bridge damage. Residents there marked their location with chairs aligned in a giant “SOS” while awaiting the U.S. relief flights, which also delivered tents and portable toilets and waste treatment kits.

Yachiyo Fuchigami, 64, was among those keeping a wary eye on puffs of smoke rising from nearby 1,592-meter (5,223-foot) Mount Aso, Japan’s largest active volcano.

Fuchigami suffered a broken arm when a bookshelf fell on her during the second earthquake. The first quake caused more damage in another, less remote city, Mashiki.

“The second earthquake caught us by surprise,” she said. “We survived the first one and were watching the scenes in Mashiki on TV. I never thought we were going to be next.”

Nine people died in the first, magnitude 6.4 earthquake, and 35 in the second quake, which registered 7.1, revised from an initial reading of 7.3.

The U.S. has about 50,000 troops stationed in Japan, and the American military played a large role in rescue and relief in 2011 after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the northeastern coast of the main island of Honshu.

“We’re here to support the Japanese defense forces, and so whatever they need and we can provide that support, we’re here to help,” said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Tom Chalkley.

Tatsuyuki Aramaki, 60, was among local residents who came from a nearby evacuation center to see the Ospreys’ arrival.

It was “hugely appreciated,” Aramaki said. “We have been living on rock-hard biscuits, old rice balls and bread,” he said. “I heard Ospreys were coming to deliver supplies for us so I had to come and see. I couldn’t wait.”

The tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey flies like an airplane but can take off and land like a helicopter, making it suited for mountainous areas like Minamiaso, said Lt. Yuichiro Inoue of the Japanese army.

The U.S. military operates 24 Ospreys in the southernmost islands of Okinawa, where most of its Japan-based troops are stationed. The aircraft have been vehemently criticized by local residents already unhappy over the large U.S. presence there. Crashes of Ospreys have raised concerns over their safety, though the U.S. military says they are safe.

In other, less remote areas, utilities had teams out fixing electricity connections, and some local supermarkets reopened after getting their shelves back in order.

Still, disruptions from damage to buildings and roads, and from outages of electricity and water supplies, were reverberating beyond Kyushu as manufacturers suspended output.

Toyota Motor Corp. said it would shut most of its vehicle production in Japan over the course of this week because of parts shortages stemming from the earthquakes. Nissan Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. also temporarily halted production at some facilities.

Japan’s Nikkei stock average fell 3.4 percent to 16,270.89 on Monday. The decline stemmed from various reasons, including a surge in the yen after weekend talks among major oil producers on freezing oil output ended without an agreement.

Many in the quake zone whose homes were not seriously damaged sought shelter as the area was rocked by more than 500 aftershocks. As of late Monday, 93,874 people were still in shelters.

With some quake evacuees complaining of having only rice balls and bread to eat, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe defended his government’s handling of the crisis.

“We are doing our best,” Abe told lawmakers when challenged by the opposition over the government’s relief efforts. “We are striving to improve living conditions for the people who have sought refuge.”

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