YAMAGATA, Japan — Some are stuck in their homes, fearful of radiation, heeding government warnings to stay indoors, cut off without electricity or phone service. Others want to leave but have no gasoline. Still more, those whose homes were ruined, wait helplessly for evacuation at crowded shelters. All face dwindling supplies of heating fuel, food and water.
A week after an earthquake and tsunami devastated their communities and set off the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, the plight of the thousands still stranded in areas near the stricken reactors — many too old or infirm to move — has underscored what residents say is a striking lack of help from the national government to assist with the evacuation of danger zones or the ferrying of supplies to those it has urged to stay inside.
“Those who can leave have already left,” Nanae Takeshima, 40, a resident of Minamisoma, a city of 70,000 about 16 miles from the nuclear plant that lies within the area covered by the advisory to stay indoors, said by phone from her home. “Those here are the ones who cannot escape.”
Instead, the task has fallen to some local governments and even private companies and organizations that have made limited but heroic efforts to help those left behind, adding to the burden of coastal communities already overwhelmed by tens of thousands of people left homeless and the search for bodies, which the nuclear evacuations have now made impossible.
Residents reached by telephone said the order by the government to evacuate a 12-mile radius around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, as well as the request for those who live 12 to 18 miles away to stay indoors, has turned communities like Minamisoma into virtual ghost towns, populated mostly by the unwilling and the unlucky.
One is Masahiro Sakashita, who had prepared for the worst from the very beginning but knew he could not leave. The director of the Fukujuen elderly care center, just 15 miles from one reactor, he sent his younger employees home as Japan’s battle to prevent nuclear catastrophe started, telling them to flee.
He and 19 other senior staff members stayed behind to keep caring for the center’s 100 or so mostly bedridden residents, the oldest of whom is 102. He said they were cut off from the outside world, with electricity and delivery of food and other supplies disrupted.
“I figured that at most we had enough food and water to last five, maybe six days,” said Sakashita, who spoke by phone from Minamisoma. “We were going to stay with them to the end.”
The end came Friday, when a similar care center in distant Yokohama, near Tokyo, volunteered to take in Fukujuen’s residents after seeing their plight reported on television and sent six buses to rescue them.
Minamisoma has been using buses to begin evacuating the tsunami survivors and other residents to areas farther away from the nuclear plant. Other cities have helped by sending buses, as have some local companies.