Death toll to top 10,000
TAGAJO, Japan—The death toll in Japan’s earthquake and tsunami will likely exceed 10,000 in one state alone, an official said on Sunday, as the government mobilized a nationwide rescue effort to pluck survivors from collapsed buildings and rushed aid to millions without water, food, electricity, or telephone service along the pulverized northeastern coast.
“This is Japan’s most severe crisis since the war ended 65 years ago,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan told reporters, adding Japan’s future would be decided by the response to this crisis.
Although the government doubled the number of soldiers deployed in the aid effort to 100,000, it seemed overwhelmed by what’s turning out to be a triple disaster: Friday’s quake and tsunami damaged two nuclear reactors at a power plant on the coast, and at least one of them appeared to be going through a partial meltdown, raising fears of a radiation leak.
Entire villages in parts of Japan’s Pacific coast vanished under a wall of water, and many communities were cut off, leaving the country trying to absorb the scale of the destruction.
The police chief of Miyagi prefecture, or state, told disaster relief officials that his estimate for deaths was more than 10,000, police spokesperson Go Sugawara told The Associated Press.
Miyagi has a population of 2.3 million and is one of the three prefectures hardest hit in Friday’s disaster. Only 379 people have officially been confirmed as dead in Miyagi.
In a rare piece of good news, the defense ministry said a military helicopter on Sunday rescued a 60-year-old man floating off the coast of Fukushima on the roof of his house after being swept away in the tsunami. He was in good condition.
The US Geological Survey calculated the initial quake to have a magnitude of 8.9, while Japanese officials raised their estimate on Sunday to 9.0. Either way it was the strongest quake ever recorded in Japan. It has been followed by more than 150 powerful aftershocks.
Most of the deaths were from drowning, but Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and firefighters are working to prevent a higher toll, rushing up the coast in helicopters and struggling to put out fires burning in industrial complexes or sweeping through Japan’s many vulnerable wooden homes.
Teams searched for the missing along hundreds of kilometers of Japanese coastline, and hundreds of thousands of hungry survivors huddled in darkened emergency centers that were cut off from rescuers and aid.
At least 1.4 million households have gone without water since the quake struck and some 2.5 million households were without electricity. Temperatures dipped near freezing overnight.
Trade Minister Banri Kaeda said the region was likely to face further blackouts and that power would be rationed to ensure supplies go to essential needs.
The government said it had sent 120,000 blankets, 120,000 bottles of water and 110,000 liters of gasoline in addition to bread, rice balls, instant cup noodles and diapers to the affected areas.
Large areas of the countryside remained surrounded by water and unreachable. Fuel stations were closed and people were running out of gasoline for their vehicles.
Public broadcaster NHK said around 380,000 people had been evacuated to emergency shelters, many of them without power.
To aid in the rescue efforts, the United States, which has several military bases in Japan, sent helicopters and destroyers. It was also sending an aircraft carrier, the Ronald Reagan, which has the ability to act as a hospital as well as to convert seawater into drinking water.
Dozens of countries have offered assistance.
Japan had clearly learned the lessons of the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995, when the government refused to accept offers of international help early enough, leading to criticism that some of the 6,000 deaths could have been avoided.
Severe aftershocks continued to rock a traumatized country.
The continual swaying and rolling of the ground deepened the disorientation of a nation accustomed to disaster, but which has not experienced anything on this scale for generations.
The breadth of the natural disasters and the potential for untold nuclear damage pose new challenges for a fragile government that has struggled with political scandals, continued economic woes and public frustration over its inability to weaken entrenched bureaucrats.
Survivors on rooftops
Aerial photographs of ravaged coastal areas showed a string of cities and villages leveled by the power of the tsunami.
Plumes of black smoke rose from burning industrial plants. Stranded ships bobbed in the water.
Town after town reported that parts of their population were unaccounted for. Survivors gathered on rooftops, frantically shouting or signaling for help.
With phone service cut throughout the area, some radio and television stations broadcast pleas from people trying desperately to find their family members or at least to assure them that they were alive.
“This is Kimura Ayako in Sapporo, looking for the Tanakas in Soma,” one caller said. “We are OK. Please tell us your location.”
Hatsue Takahashi of Onagawa in Miyagi prefecture sent out a message on NHK Education TV to Rina Takahashi in the same town: “Hang on,” she said. “I’ll go there to meet you.”
And Sachiko Atara of Iwaki City called out across the airwaves in hopes of reaching Hideharu Komatsu in Sendai City: “We are all OK, waiting for your contact.”
3 trains missing
In Oarai, a port about 240 km south of hard-hit Sendai, fishing boats, trucks and cars lay 100 meters back from the water’s edge, deposited in a jagged line like seashells left behind by the farthest reach of powerful waves.
Some fishing boats had capsized; those swept into town by the tsunami teetered on their sides, or were tossed upside down.
JR, the railway company, reported that three passenger trains had not been accounted for as of Saturday night, amid fears that they were swept away by the tsunami.
There were reports of as many as 3,400 buildings destroyed and 200 fires raging. Analysts estimated that total insured losses from the quake could hit $15 billion, Reuters reported.
The tsunami wreaked the most damage.
Tsunami experts estimated that despite Japan’s extensive warning systems and drills, there would only have been between 15 and 30 minutes after the earthquake struck before the tsunami washed in, leaving those in coastal areas precious little time to flee.
One-third of Kesennuma, a city of 74,000, was submerged, the BBC said, and photographs showed fires continued to rage there.
Iwate, a coastal city of 23,000 people, was reported to be almost completely destroyed, the BBC said.
Local television here reported that the authorities had found 300 to 400 bodies at the town of Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture. At Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture, 97 residents of a retirement home were found dead.
Although aftershocks were continuing to rattle Tokyo, signs of normality were appearing. Flight schedules were resuming at Tokyo’s principal airports, Narita and Haneda, and most of Tokyo’s trains and subways were operating.
Sendai was perhaps the hardest hit of the coastal cities.
Sendai’s website, posted in Tokyo because much of the north was still without electricity, recorded a grim list of the toll: 1.4 million homes in the city without electricity, and 500,000 homes without water.
Michael Tonge, a teacher from Britain, said he hoped the earthquake would not come to be known as the “Sendai quake.”
“If that’s what people are calling it, then that is unfortunate,” Tonge said. “This is a beautiful city with nice people. A great place to live.”
At a small park near a burning refinery in Sendai, trees and large swaths of grass were covered in thick black crude oil. Two large tanker trucks were jammed sideways among the trees, their gas tanks crumpled.
In Tagajo town, near Sendai, dazed residents roamed streets cluttered with smashed cars, broken homes and twisted metal.
“It’s been two days, and all I’ve been given so far is a piece of bread and a rice ball,” said Masashi Imai, 56.
Firefighters dug through a devastated Sendai neighborhood. One of them yelled: “A corpse.” Inside a house, he had found the body of a gray-haired woman under a blanket.
A few minutes later, the firefighters spotted another—that of a man in black fleece jacket and pants, crumpled in a partial fetal position at the bottom of a wooden stairwell.
‘What’s important in life’
The man’s neighbor, 24-year-old Ayumi Osuga, said she had been playing origami, the Japanese art of folding paper into figures, with her three children when the quake stuck.
She gathered her children—aged 2 to 6—and fled in her car to higher ground with her husband.
“My family, my children. We are lucky to be alive,” she told The Associated Press. “I have come to realize what is important in life.” Reports from Associated Press and New York Times News Service
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