August 31, 2006

Japan holds huge quake drill with US military

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan held a huge earthquake disaster drill in Tokyo on Friday with a U.S. navy ship transporting evacuees and helicopters carrying relief supplies.

The exercises, held every year on the anniversary of the Great Kanto earthquake which killed more than 140,000 people on September 1, 1923, are a reminder that the island nation, where earthquakes occur frequently, must be vigilant.

An earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 5.7 struck southern Japan shortly before the drills started. But there were no reports of damage or casualties. On Thursday, Tokyo was struck by a 4.8 magnitude quake.

In a mock news conference on Friday, a grim-faced Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said that massive damage had been caused by an earthquake that struck Tokyo earlier in the day.

The news conference was part of annual disaster drills that mobilized about 800,000 people around Japan as well as scores of U.S. military personnel for the first time and several South Korean rescue workers.

Koizumi's announcement was based on a scenario in which an earthquake struck directly beneath Tokyo with a 7.3 magnitude in the morning rush hours, a level identical to a quake that hit the city of Kobe in January 1995 that killed more than 6,400 people.

Under the scenario, the quake killed 4,300 people, injured 154,000 and left 4.47 million people stranded.

The major tremor destroyed nearly 110,000 homes and sparked fire that burned down 73,000 houses.

Rescue workers rappelled down the side of skyscrapers, helicopters lifted people from rivers, and fire trucks were mobilized to take people from the roof of a high-rise building.

The U.S. military mobilized the Frigate USS GARY to transport 30 "evacuees" from the Tokyo Bay to Yokosuka, a U.S. navy base for the Seventh Fleet.

Japan accounts for about 20 percent of the world's earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater.

The Tokyo Metropolitan government said in March that a magnitude 7.3 earthquake under Tokyo would probably kill more than 5,600 people and injure almost 160,000. Official estimates of economic damage have topped more than $1 trillion.

Tokyo, with a population of 12 million, sits on the junction of four tectonic plates: the Eurasian, North American, Philippine and Pacific. The sudden bending or breaking of any plate can trigger an earthquake.