At least 48 persons have died as rescuers scrambled to find survivors of a wave of 155 earthquakes that hit Japan on the New Year’s day, AFP reported.

The biggest quake was of 7.6 magnitude, with the epicentre 42 kilometres northeast of Anamizu town on the Noto Peninsula in the Ishikawa prefecture, triggering a tsunami that toppled buildings, caused a major port fire and tore apart roads.

“It was such a powerful jolt,” Tsugumasa Mihara, a 73-year-old resident, told AFP as he queued with hundreds of others for water in the town of Shika. “What a terrible way to start the year.”

Local authorities put the death count at 48 with at least 15 in the Wajima city in Ishikawa. However, the authorities added that the number was expected to rise. Sixteen others have been seriously injured, AP reported.

The damage caused by the quake to buildings, roads and boats has been so widespread that it could not be immediately assessed, the authorities added. Tens of thousands of households without power as temperatures plummeted to freezing degrees. Many cities are without running water and cellphone services.

“Very extensive damage has been confirmed, including numerous casualties, building collapses and fires,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said after a disaster response meeting. “We have to race against time to search for and rescue victims of the disaster.”

A crew comprising 3,000 Army personnel, firefighters and police officers have been sent to the quake site on the peninsula for rescue operations, reported Reuters.

Kishida said that the rescuers were finding it difficult to access the northern tip of the peninsula as helicopter surveys found many fires and widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure. A spokesperson for the government said that there are around 120 cases of people awaiting rescue in the region.

In the coastal town of Suzu, about 1,000 houses may have been destroyed, according to its Mayor Masuhiro Izumiya.

The first quake, which struck around 4.10 pm local time on Monday, was shallow, with a depth of 10 kilometres, the United States Geological Survey said. Shallow earthquakes tend to be more destructive.

Tremors from the quake were also reported from different parts of the country, including the capital, Tokyo.

The disaster prompted a tsunami alert for Ishikawa, Niigata, Toyama, Fukui and Yamagata prefectures and the northern part of Hyogo prefecture. However, later, Japan dropped the alert but told residents of coastal areas not to return to their homes as deadly waves could still come.