Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan: Situation Grim On Many Fronts

Japan Confronts Multiple Crises as Death Toll Rises

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Tokyo - Anxiety mounted in Japan on Tuesday as the country struggled to come to grips with the scope of the natural disaster that struck last Friday and the nuclear crisis it unleashed.

The National Police Agency said Tuesday afternoon that, so far, 2,722 people were confirmed to have died in the earthquake and tsunami, and many thousands remained missing. Bodies continued to wash ashore after having been pulled out to sea by the tsunami’s retreat. A brief ray of hope pierced the gloom on Tuesday, when two people were rescued from collapsed buildings after being trapped for more than 90 hours.

Some 400,000 people were living in makeshift shelters or evacuation centers, officials said. Bitterly cold and windy weather descending on northern Japan compounded the misery as survivors endured shortages of food, fuel and water.

The threat of radiation exposure from a deepening crisis at Japan’s stricken nuclear plants intensified the dislocation and fear sweeping the nation. The third reactor blast in four days on Tuesday morning at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Station pushed up radiation levels in the air over Tokyo, where some residents made plans to leave the city while others began to buy and stockpile food, water, candles and batteries. Shelves at grocery stores were stripped bare. Prime Minister Naoto Kan went on national television to implore people not to panic.

The government ordered all 47 prefectures in Japan to begin making radiation-level test results public twice daily and to alert national authorities quickly if they detect elevated levels.

Though prevailing winds have so far blown leaked radioactive material out over the Pacific Ocean rather than back toward the Asian mainland, Chinese health and environmental officials held urgent meetings on Tuesday about how to respond if radioactive fallout reaches China. “Definitely, China has several levels of contingency plans,” said Zhang Wei, an official at the National Institute for Radiological Protection.

Nations like South Korea and Singapore said they would step up inspections of food imported from Japan.

There were scattered news reports of some foreigners fleeing Japan, and one Western diplomat said Tuesday night that “anecdotes and rumors” were swirling in the international community.

A number of airlines suspended service to Tokyo and northern cities closer to the stricken nuclear plant, or relocated their flights and employees to airports in southern Japan. One foreign manufacturer, BMW, said it had relocated its 800 employees away from the disaster area to southern Japan or to Germany. The Austrian embassy moved temporarily to Osaka from Tokyo, and French officials advised their citizens to leave Tokyo.

Still, there appeared to be no mass exodus. The United States Embassy, for example, was not urging resident Americans to leave the country, though it was advising travelers not to go to Japan for now. And the mood on the street in Tokyo Tuesday night was concerned and stoic rather than fearful and desperate.

The ambassador, John V. Roos, said that about 1,300 Americans were living in the five northern prefectures most affected by the earthquake and the tsunami. American consular officers were making their way to Sendai and other northern cities on Tuesday to conduct “welfare-and-whereabouts” checks on American citizens there, Mr. Roos said.

The Chinese government said it was preparing to send buses to evacuate Chinese citizens from four prefectures in the north.

In the areas hardest hit by Friday’s earthquake and the tsunami that followed, rescue teams from 13 nations, some assisted by dogs, continued to search for survivors. Japanese news media reported that a 92-year-old man was found alive in a collapsed building in Ishinomaki City and a 70-year-old woman in the wreckage of her home in Iwate Prefecture. In the air, helicopters shuttled back and forth, part of a mobilization of some 100,000 troops, the largest in Japan since World War II, to assist in rescue and relief work.

The United States Geological Survey revised the magnitude of the earthquake to 9.0, from 8.9, but it was the subsequent tsunami that did the most damage. The initial wave scoured away entire communities, and desperate survivors searched Tuesday for signs of friends and relatives who remained missing.

There was plenty that was missing in the fishing village of Minamisanriku: the city hall, the hospital, the shipyard, police stations — and 8,000 people.

The tsunami might have crashed most heavily into this town, which once was home to more than 17,000. Situated at the head of a V-shaped cove bracketed by mountains, the town was swamped by a surge of muck and seawater that rose to 30 feet high. more

In pictures.

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