Massive landslides engulfed houses and severed roads at a mountainous town in Hokkaido as a powerful earthquake struck Japan's northernmost main island early Thursday, when most people were asleep.

Power went out across Hokkaido following the quake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.7, paralyzing transportation, communication, trade and medical services, while a nuclear power plant was forced to switch to emergency power generators.

People said they felt a sudden large upthrust followed by a long shaking shortly after 3 a.m. and were worried about continuing aftershocks in the region.

"It messed up my entire house. I've never experienced an earthquake like this," said an 87-year-old man in Atsuma near the epicenter. He said he had to hurl himself against a door of his home to try and get out, as it was bent by the quake and did not open.

"The shaking was so widespread that I couldn't even prepare to flee," said a 55-year-old woman in the same town, adding her home was left without water and a chimney broke off and fell onto her parked vehicle.

Landslides occurred simultaneously in a number of mountains in Atsuma, laying bare hillsides as soil and trees engulfed residential areas and agricultural land.

Images taken from a Self-Defense Force helicopter showed roads that had caved in or that had been blocked by landslides. They also showed trees and soil that had slid into a dam.

Dozens of rescue workers were searching for people unaccounted for at the site of a landslide in the town, removing earth and sand with heavy equipment. So far, the earthquake has claimed two lives and left at least 32 others missing.

Hisao Hatashima, 54, whose parents in their 80s are among the missing, said he had talked with them the previous day. "I didn't imagine something like this would happen just a day later," he said in tears.

(Massive landslides in Atsuma, as seen in top photo; bottom photo shows the town prior to earthquake)
[Bottom photo: Copyright Google]

Workers and officials scrambled to bring back power to the northern prefecture by restarting power plants that had come to an emergency halt.

The government and Hokkaido Electric Power Co. said the massive power outage covering the 2.95 million households in the prefecture was caused because the Tomatoatsuma thermal power plant stopped, subsequently creating an imbalance in power supply and demand.

The halt of the producer of nearly half of the prefecture's electricity has destabilized power-supply frequency and forced other thermal power plants to come to an emergency halt, they said.

In Sapporo, the largest city in Hokkaido, traffic lights were not working due to a power outage and police officers were seen directing traffic by hand.

"I was woken up by the large quake. The elevator of my apartment stopped and I had to flee by the stairs to the first floor," said a 32-year-old man in the city.

Six public hospitals in the city have stopped accepting patients due to the lack of electricity, while some institutions in nearby Tomakomai and Chitose cities were also closed.

"We can only use minimal equipment and cannot accept emergency patients or outpatients," said a member of staff at a Tomakomai hospital, adding the facility now relies on private power generation.

All trials scheduled for the day at Sapporo courts were canceled, while the Sapporo Securities Exchange has halted all trading and said it does not know when it can resume services.

"We cannot reach the Sapporo bourse through land-line phones and officials are exchanging information via mobile phone," said an official of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, which provides trading system services to the local exchange.

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