Need Overwhelms Japan After Quake and Tsunami
By MARTIN FACKLER and MARK McDONALD
March 14, 2011, NATORI, Japan — What the sea so violently ripped away, it has now begun to return. Hundreds of bodies are washing up along some shores in northeastern Japan, making clearer the extraordinary toll of the earthquake and tsunami that struck last week and adding to the burdens of relief workers as they ferry aid and search for survivors.
On Monday, various reports from police officials and news agencies said that as many as 2,000 bodies had now washed ashore along the coastline, overwhelming the capacity of local officials. That, combined with the country’s unfolding nuclear disaster and a regionwide stock market plunge, has become what Prime Minister Naoto Kan described as Japan’s worst crisis since World War II.
About 350,000 people have reportedly been left homeless and are staying in shelters, awaiting news of friends and relatives among the many thousands who remain unaccounted for. The national police said early Tuesday that more than 15,000 were missing, though just 2,475 deaths had been confirmed since the quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey revised to a magnitude of 9.0, from 8.9, on Monday.
With police officials estimating that 10,000 people may have been swept away in one town alone, Minamisanriku, north of here, there was every expectation that the toll would rise.
The disruptions to Japan’s $5 trillion economy, the third-largest in the world, and collective anxiety over the stricken reactors caused a rout in the Japanese stock market that reverberated across the region on Tuesday.
A steep decline in the Japanese stock market, which lost 13 percent by midday Tuesday, sent other Asian markets tumbling. The Bank of Japan, which injected a record $183.8 billion into the economy on Monday to maintain liquidity, poured in tens of billions of dollars more on Tuesday, which failed to halt the slide.
Here in Natori, where some of the first pictures of the tsunami showed a towering initial wave lashing a line of trees, all that remains along the coast is a field of black mud. Brightly clad searchers bent to their work Monday — the police in navy blue, the handlers of sniffer dogs in orange, the military squads in camouflage.
They made their way around marooned boats and collapsed houses, finding toys, torn bedding, tangled fishing nets and pieces of cars, toilets or pottery, all the mundane pieces of daily life, now broken. Occasionally, too, they found a body, sometimes already covered by a tarp.
The region continues to face widespread power and water shortages. When relief supplies do come, residents clamor for help. At Natori City Hall, survivors quickly lined up at a truck handing out large containers of water. Lines of nearly a mile formed in front of stations providing gasoline.
At City Hall, officials in this town of 70,000 residents have posted a list of the 8,340 people who arrived safely at 41 makeshift shelters. Dozens of people crammed into the building’s small lobby to pore over the lists.
Those who could not find the name they sought wrote out messages on pieces of paper, and taped them to the entrance. Hundreds of pieces hung there.
Mikako Watanabe, 26, and Yumiko Watanabe, 24, were looking for their mother. They were at work when the tsunami struck, but their mother was napping at home in the Yuriage neighborhood, as she always did after her night shift as a nurse.
“I hope she woke up with the earthquake and got to safety in time,” the older sister said. “We have no way to contact her.”
On Monday, three days after the tsunami, they still had no word of her. Their message said, “Yurika Watanabe, we’re looking for you. Contact us if you see this.”
But communications are badly broken. With cellphone service largely knocked out, many residents are relying on the small number of surviving pay phones.
Some meetings are by chance. In the crowds, there were squeals of joy at reunions — and crying for relatives not found. One woman wailed over and over, “Her name is not on the list! Her name is not on the list!” She said she was looking for her sister-in-law, who lived in Yuriage. She said that if she is not at an evacuation center, she must be dead.
Rescue teams from 13 countries pressed on with the searches. One used a German shepherd and a small spaniel in Yuriage. The shepherd would climb around the wreckage of homes and twisted hulks of cars, sniffing. If he started barking, the team sent in the spaniel, small enough to prowl around the crevices of the wreckage.
In one case, the spaniel also barked. The team began digging in the debris, but found nothing. “Is there anyone here? Is there anyone alive?” They yelled as they dug. A member of the team said that there was now a scant chance of survivors, and the dogs were finding only corpses.
Off in the distance, a small cluster of buildings stood undamaged on the sad expanse of the mud flats. Outlined against the afternoon sky, they seemed like tombstones.
Such was the rubble that soldiers used olive-drab power shovels and construction equipment to cut roads through the mountains of debris.
In the air, helicopters shuttled back and forth constantly, part of a mobilization of some 100,000 troops, the largest since World War II. Several convoys could be seen on the road to Sendai, a larger city to the north.
Some firefighters in Natori had arrived from as far away as the southern city of Hiroshima, reflecting the fact that rescuers had descended from across Japan.
In addition, helicopters and ships from the United States Seventh Fleet, including the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, had joined the tsunami relief effort.
Farther south, in the city of Fukushima, gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants were closed, and convenience stores had no food or drinks to sell — only cigarettes. Red Cross water tankers dispensed drinking water to Fukushima residents who waited in long, orderly lines.
Because of the Fukushima nuclear plants being lost to the national power grid, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the plants, announced plans for rolling blackouts across the region to conserve electricity — the first controlled power cutbacks in Japan in 60 years.
Tokyo-area residents worriedly followed a series of confusing statements from the power company about the location and duration of the power reductions. Just after 5 p.m., the utility said it had started cutting power to parts of two prefectures — Ibaraki, north of Tokyo, and Shizuoka, south of the capital.
Tokyo was feeling the effects, too. Residents had struggled to get to work Monday as a number of important commuter rail lines ran on limited schedules. Six lines featuring Japan’s famous shinkansen, or bullet trains, were not running. Six major department stores also closed for the day because workers were unable to reach the city.
The rush hour Tuesday morning was nearly as chaotic as commuters were unsure whether trains and subways would be operating. The power company’s announcements continued to be misleading and unclear, and the company came under criticism from the central government.
The first set of blackouts Tuesday morning began in four prefectures outside Tokyo. The utility, which provides service to 45 million people in the region, said the cuts could continue for six weeks.
Public conservation of electricity was significant enough, the company said, that the more drastic blackout scenarios were being scaled back. Still, anticipating deep and lengthy power cuts, many people were stocking up on candles, water, instant noodles and batteries for radios.
Toyota also announced it was closing all its factories until at least Thursday, and in the stock market, shares in the car sector fell as much as 6 percent.
The U.S. Geological Survey recorded 96 aftershocks on Sunday, and many Japanese were alarmed at several earthquake warnings that appeared as televised bulletins on Monday. A warning at 4 p.m., an alert announced by gentle trilling bells told of expected “strong shaking” across the entire waist of Japan, essentially from Tokyo to Kyoto.