SOMA, Japan – Rescue workers used chainsaws and hand picks today to dig out bodies in Japan’s devastated coastal towns, as Asia’s richest nation faced a growing humanitarian, nuclear and economic crisis in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami.
Millions of people spent a third night without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures along the devastated northeastern coast. Also, the containment building of a second nuclear reactor exploded because of hydrogen buildup while the stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries including big names such as Toyota and Honda.
More than 10,000 people are estimated to have died in Friday’s twin tragedy that has caused unimaginable deprivation for people of this industrialised country that has not seen such hardships since World War II. In many areas there is no running water, no power and four- to five-hour waits for petrol. People are suppressing hunger with instant noodles or rice balls while dealing with the loss of loved ones and homes.
“People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming,” said Hajime Sato, a government official in Iwate prefecture, one of the three hardest hit.
“We have repeatedly asked the government to help us, but the government is overwhelmed by the scale of damage and enormous demand for food and water,” he told The Associated Press.
“We are only getting around just 10 per cent of what we have requested. But we are patient because everyone in the quake-hit areas is suffering.”
He said local authorities were also running out of body bags and coffins.
“We have requested funeral homes across the nation to send us many body bags and coffins. But we simply don’t have enough. We just did not expect such a thing to happen. It’s just overwhelming.”
Sato said local authorities may ask foreign funeral homes to send supplies.
The pulverized coast has been hit by more than 150 aftershocks since Friday, the latest one a 6.2 magnitude quake that was followed by a new tsunami scare Monday. Abandoning their search operations, soldiers told residents of the devastated shoreline in Soma, the worst hit town in Fukushima prefecture, to run to higher ground.
Sirens wailed and soldiers shouted “find high ground! Get out of here!” Several uniformed soldiers were seen leading an old woman up a muddy hillside. The warning turned out to be a false alarm.
“This is Japan’s most severe crisis since the war ended 65 years ago,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan told reporters Sunday, adding that Japan’s future would be decided by its response.
On Sunday, search parties arrived in Soma for the first time since Friday to dig out bodies. Ambulances stood by and body bags were laid out in an area cleared of debris, as firefighters used hand picks and chain saws to clear an indescribable jumble of broken timber, plastic sheets, roofs, sludge, twisted cars, tangled powerlines and household goods.
Helicopters buzzed overhead, surveying the destruction that spanned the horizon. Ships were flipped over near roads, a kilometre inland. Officials said one-third of the city of 38,000 people was flooded and thousands were missing.
According to officials, more than 1,800 people have been confirmed dead – including 200 people whose bodies were found Sunday along the coast – and more than 1,400 were missing in Friday’s disasters. Another 1,900 were injured.
But police in Miyagi prefecture say 10,000 people are likely dead in their area alone. Miyagi, with a population of 2.3 million, was one of the hardest hit areas.
“I’m giving up hope,” said Hajime Watanabe, 38, a construction industry worker, who was the first in line at a closed gas station in Sendai, about 100 kilometres north of Soma. Just then, an emergency worker came over and told him that if the station opens at all, it would pump petrol only to emergency teams and essential government workers.
“I never imagined we would be in such a situation” Watanabe said. “I had a good life before. Now we have nothing. No gas, no electricity, no water.”
He said he was surviving with his family on 60 half-litre bottles of water his wife had stored in case of emergencies like this. He walked two hours to find a convenience store that was open and waited in line to buy dried ramen noodles.
The government has sent 100,000 troops to spearhead the aid effort. It has sent 120,000 blankets, 120,000 bottles of water and 110,000 litres of petrol plus food to the affected areas. However electricity would take days to restore.
At least 1.4 million households had gone without water since the quake struck and some 1.9 million households were without electricity.
One reason for the loss of power is the damage to at least three nuclear reactors, two of them at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant.
Operators dumped seawater into the two reactors in a last-ditch attempt to cool their super-heated containers that faced possible meltdown. If that happens, they could release radioactive material in the air. On Monday, the containment building of the second reactor exploded, just as the first one had on Saturday.
But Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the reactor’s inner containment vessel holding the nuclear fuel rods was intact, allaying some fears of the risk to the environment. The containment vessel of the first reactor is also safe, according to officials.
Still, people within a 20-kilometre radius were ordered to stay inside homes following the blast. AP journalists felt the explosion 40 kilometre away.
More than 180,000 people have evacuated the area in recent days, and up to 160 may have been exposed to radiation after the first blast.
Also, Tokyo Electric Power held off on imposing rolling blackouts planned for Monday, but called for people try to limit electricity use.
Edano said the utility was still prepared to go ahead with power rationing if necessary. The decision reflected an understanding of the profound inconveniences many would experience.
Many regional train lines were suspended or operating on a limited schedule to help reduce the power load.
The planned blackouts of about three hours each were meant to help make up for a severe shortfall after key nuclear plants were left inoperable due to the earthquake and tsunami.
Japan’s central bank has injected 7 trillion yen (US$85.5 billion) into money markets today to stem worries about the world’s third-largest economy.
Stocks fell in early trading Monday on the first business day after the disasters. The benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average shed 494 points, or 4.8 per cent, to 9,760.45 just after the market opened.
Preliminary estimates put repair costs from the earthquake and tsunami that struck Friday in the tens of billions of dollars – a huge blow for an already fragile economy that lost its place as the world’s No. 2 to China last year.
In the town of Minamisanrikucho, 10,000 people – nearly two-thirds of the population – have not been heard from since the tsunami wiped it out, a government spokesman said.
About a third of the town of Soma was wiped out, with several hundred homes washed away. Three districts of town on the shoreline are now covered in rubble, overturned cars and trucks and waist-high, dirty green water. A tiny pink girl’s bicycle, all twisted up, sits near a child’s backpack – just some of the personal belongings littering the landscape.
Atsushi Shishito sat in a daze on the concrete foundation of his home, now completely washed away. He sleeps at an evacuation center. The 30-year-old carried his grandmother to higher ground to escape the tsunami.
“All my other relatives are all dead,” he added. “Washed away.”