‘Scene from hell’: Panic hits Tokyo; 70,000 flee nuclear zone

/ 05:46 AM March 16, 2011

TOKYO—Canned goods, batteries, bread and bottled water vanished from store shelves and some residents began to leave, as panic swept Tokyo on Tuesday and the government ordered thousands living near an earthquake-crippled nuclear power plant to stay indoors and avoid radiation sickness.

Some 70,000 people residing within a 20-kilometer radius from the disabled Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station northeast of the capital have already evacuated and 140,000 remain in the danger zone.


The widening cloud of radiation has added to the misery of millions of people in the devastated northeast.

The humanitarian crisis facing Japan following Friday’s ferocious earthquake and tsunami was unfolding on multiple fronts—from a sudden rise in orphaned children to shortages of water, food, medicine and electricity to overflowing toilets in packed shelters and erratic care of traumatized survivors.


$620B wiped out

“It’s a scene from hell, absolutely nightmarish,” Patrick Fuller of the International Red Cross Federation said from the northeastern coastal town of Otsuchi.

As concern about the crippling economic impact of the nuclear and earthquake disasters mounted, Japanese stocks fell as much as 14 percent before ending down nearly 11 percent, compounding a slide of 7.6 percent the day before.

The two-day fall has wiped some $620 billion off the market.

Financial analysts said the economic losses from the disaster, estimated at over $180 billion, could tip the world’s third-biggest economy back into recession.

‘Stay indoors … close windows’

“Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano urged the public. “Please close windows and make your homes airtight. Don’t turn on ventilators. Please hang your laundry indoors.”


In Tokyo, several embassies advised staff and citizens to leave affected areas, tourists cut short vacations and multinational companies either urged their staff to leave or said they were considering plans to move outside the city.

The French Embassy in the capital warned in an advisory that a low level of radioactive wind could reach Tokyo—240 km south of the Dai-ichi nuclear plant—in about 10 hours.

Don Quixote

In one sign of the panic, Don Quixote, a multistory, 24-hour general store in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, was sold out of radios, flashlights, candles, fuel cans and sleeping bags.

Some international journalists covering the disaster from the worst-hit region around the northeastern city of Sendai were pulling out.

The Tokyo office of Michael Page International, a British recruitment agency, was closing for the week.

“I am leaving for Singapore tomorrow and will work from our Singapore office,” one employee said.

Retailers said they hadn’t seen such panic in years, perhaps since the oil crisis in the 1970s.

Radiation levels

Kyodo News said “minute levels” of radiation had been detected in Tokyo and radiation levels in Saitama, near Tokyo, were 40 times normal levels—not enough to cause human damage but enough to stoke panic in the bustling, ultra-modern and hyper-efficient metropolis of 12 million people.

Winds over an earthquake-stricken nuclear power plant were blowing slowly in a southwesterly direction that includes Tokyo, but were to blow westerly later in the day, a weather official said.

The wind was moving at a speed of about 2-3 meters per second, said the official with the Japan Meteorological Agency.

The official said wind speeds were expected to increase on Wednesday, blowing south at 3 to 5 meters per second before changing later in the day to blow easterly out to the Pacific Ocean at a faster rate of 5 to 12 meters per second.

‘Situation hysterical’

Stores were running out of necessities, raising government fears that hoarding may hurt the delivery of emergency food aid to those who really need it.

“The situation is hysterical,” said Tomonao Matsuo, the spokesperson for instant noodle maker Nissin Foods, which donated a million items including its “Cup Noodles” for disaster relief.

“People feel safer just by buying Cup Noodles,” Matsuo said.

The frenzied buying is compounding supply problems from damaged and congested roads, stalled factories, reduced train service and other disruptions caused by Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake off Japan’s northeast coast and the major tsunami it generated.

Chocolate bars gone

Renho, the minister in charge of consumer affairs, who goes by one name, asked people to refrain from buying items they don’t really need.

Michiaki Tada, a 40-year-old Tokyo Web programmer, was stunned to find the shelves bare at several convenience stores. He gave up and has just been eating out.

“It’s like a joke. Cup Noodles, rice balls, snacks—just about everything, except for super-hot chips, is gone,” he said. “I can’t even find chocolate bars.”

Family Mart convenience store owner Kazuhiro Minami was expecting a small delivery later Tuesday, but said he would have to shut anyway if the electric utility decided to go ahead with proposed three-hour rolling blackouts.

“I’m really, really worried,” he said, blaming hoarding, distribution problems and worries that there might be another quake.

Preparing for emergencies

Even in the western city of Hiroshima, untouched by the earthquake and tsunami, stores are running out of batteries and the media are warning people not to hoard.

Panasonic Corp., which donated 500,000 batteries, 10,000 flashlights and 300 million yen ($3 million) for quake victims, boosted battery production at its Osaka plant by adding work shifts. It also increased shipments from its battery factories in Thailand and Indonesia.

“We have been working round the clock to improve supplies to the store,” said Anthony Rose, a Hong Kong-based vice president for Wal-Mart Asia, which owns the Japanese supermarket chain Seiyu Ltd.

“The needs are surging because people are suddenly preparing for emergencies and stocking up on bottled water, cup noodles and other items with a long shelf life,” said Shoko Amesara, the spokesperson for Daiei Inc., another major supermarket chain.

The country is also expecting an electricity shortage, because 11 nuclear power plants in northeastern Japan, which furnish much of the power for the Tokyo area, have been shut down after the quake. Reports from Associated Press and Reuters

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TAGS: Asia Australia – East Asia, Consumer issues, Disasters (general), Earthquake, Nuclear accidents, Tsunami
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