WAJIMA, Japan, Jan. 2 (Reuters) After a massive earthquake slammed Japan on New Year's Day, rescue crews struggled on Tuesday to reach remote places where buildings had collapsed, roads had been destroyed, and tens of thousands of houses had lost electricity. At least 48 people were dead.
When the 7.6 quake hit on Monday afternoon, coastal residents fled to higher ground as tsunami waves swept vehicles and buildings into the water throughout Japan's western shore.
A 3,000-person army, fireman, and police rescue force has been mobilized to the Noto peninsula seismic location in Ishikawa prefecture.
"The search and rescue of those impacted by the quake is a battle against time," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in an emergency meeting on Tuesday, wearing a blue disaster response uniform.
Kishida said rescuers were having trouble reaching the northern point of the Noto peninsula, where helicopter assessments found multiple flames and severe building and infrastructure damage. His government spokesperson said 120 people need rescue.
Many train and airline services have been halted. Noto's airport closed due to runway and access road fractures and terminal building damage, stranding around 500 people.
Municipality mayor Masuhiro Izumiya estimates that 1,000 residences may have been damaged in Suzu, a seaside hamlet of little over 5,000 near the quake's epicenter.
The 48 deaths in Ishikawa prefecture make it Japan's worst earthquake since 2016, when a 7.3 magnitude one killed over 220 people in Kumamoto on the southern island.
Tuesday saw officials fighting fires in many locations and rescuing individuals from collapsing structures.
"I've never experienced a quake that powerful," said Wajima resident Shoichi Kobayashi, 71, who was enjoying a New Year's lunch with his wife and son when the tremor shattered furniture in the dining room.
"Even the aftershocks made it difficult to stand up straight," he added, adding that his family slept in their van since they couldn't return to their damaged home.
The Japan Meteorological Agency reported 200 tremors since the quake on Monday and warned of worse shocks in the coming days.