TOKYO - At least 57 people were killed in the powerful earthquake that struck the Noto Peninsula and surrounding areas in central Japan on New Year's Day, as more reports of damage came in and rescuers raced to find survivors amid continuing aftershocks on Tuesday.

The magnitude-7.6 quake destroyed houses in Suzu on the tip of the peninsula and caused fires in the city of Wajima in Ishikawa Prefecture. But the full extent of the damage remains unknown, with rubble and severed roads hampering aid supplies and rescue operations.

Photo shows a collapsed building in Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, on Jan. 2, 2024. (Kyodo)

"The situation is devastating, as about 90 percent of houses have been completely or nearly completely destroyed," Suzu Mayor Masuhiro Izumiya said at a prefectural government meeting.

The 57 victims included 24 reported in Wajima, 20 in Suzu and five in Nanao, among others, according to the prefecture.

Tsunami warnings covering extensive areas along the Sea of Japan were lifted Tuesday morning, after the highest wave of at least 1.2 meters reached Wajima Port on Monday following the 4:10 p.m. quake.

In Wajima, a seven-story building toppled over sideways while a central area known for its morning market was gutted by a large blaze that broke out Monday.

Fires engulfed over 200 structures in the central Wajima area but have been brought under control, Ishikawa prefectural officials said.

The quake has also caused injuries and structural damage in Niigata, Toyama, Fukui and Gifu prefectures.

Photo taken on Jan. 2, 2024 shows a market known as a famous tourist spot burning down in Wajima in the central Japan prefecture of Ishikawa following a strong earthquake that rocked a wide area on the Sea of Japan coast the previous day. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Photo taken from a Kyodo News plane shows smoke arising from the scene of a fire in Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, on Jan. 2, 2024. (Kyodo)

As of Tuesday before noon, the number of evacuees including those in Ishikawa and Niigata prefectures totaled 57,360, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi said.

At a junior high school gymnasium in Wajima where more than 100 evacuees took shelter Monday, many of them ran from the tsunami without warm clothes, with some covering their bodies with sacks in an effort to keep warm.

"It is extremely difficult for vehicles to enter northern areas of the Noto Peninsula," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a press conference, adding the central government has been coordinating the shipment of relief supplies using ships.

About 1,000 Self-Defense Forces personnel are engaged in rescue and relief operations, Kishida said.

According to JR West, some 1,400 shinkansen bullet train passengers were stranded for around 11 hours as the company halted operations for four trains on the Hokuriku line between Toyama and Kanazawa stations to inspect tracks and other facilities following the earthquake. The service resumed late Tuesday afternoon.

The powerful temblor was likely triggered by recent seismic swarms rattling the central Japan peninsula due to ascending fluid, most likely groundwater, from deep underground which led to fault line slips, according to seismic experts.

Seismic activity has frequently been observed around the peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture since around December 2020, the Japan Meteorological Agency pointed out. The area recorded a quake in September 2021 that reached level 5 of a maximum 7 on Japan's seismic intensity scale, followed by level-6 temblors in June 2022 and May 2023.

It is also known that there are active fault lines off the Noto Peninsula.

The New Year's Day quake was centered around 30 kilometers east-northeast of Wajima with a provisional depth of 16 km, registering a maximum 7 on the intensity scale, according to the agency.

Evacuees stay in a plastic greenhouse in Wajima in the central Japan prefecture of Ishikawa on Jan. 2, 2024, following a strong earthquake that rocked a wide area on the Sea of Japan coast the previous day. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo
Photo taken from a Kyodo News plane on Jan. 2, 2024, shows damage from the previous day's major earthquake and subsequent tsunami at a fishing port in Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture, and its vicinity. (Kyodo)

A level-7 quake is described as making it impossible for people to remain standing. Such a temblor was last recorded in 2018 in Hokkaido, the weather agency said.

The country's Geospatial Information Authority said it observed that the ground was lifted by up to 4 meters in one spot in Wajima and probably up to about 1 meter in Suzu.

Foreign governments including those of the United States, Canada and Italy offered support.

In Washington, President Joe Biden said in a statement released after the quake that the United States will provide "any necessary assistance for the Japanese people."

Photo taken on Jan. 2, 2024, from a Kyodo News helicopter shows capsized fishing boats off Shika in the central Japan prefecture of Ishikawa following a strong earthquake that rocked a wide area on the Sea of Japan coast the previous day. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

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