Rescuers Struggle to Reach Survivors

Japanese authorities continued to struggle to respond to the aftermath of Friday’s earthquake and tsunamias thousands remained missing and nearly half a million survivors huddled in temporary shelters.

Rescue workers look over an area flooded by the tsunami in Minamisoma, Fukushima, Japan.
Sankei | Getty Images
Rescue workers look over an area flooded by the tsunami in Minamisoma, Fukushima, Japan.

Official figures put the death toll at 1,834 on Monday, although reports of bodies lying unclaimed, due to the difficulty of approaching large parts of the worst-hit areas in northern Japan, suggest this will rise considerably.

The human toll and infrastructure damage wreaked by the disaster is likely to be the worst in Japan’s postwar history; far exceeding the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which devastated the city and much of the surrounding area.

The cost of rebuilding after the Kobe disaster has been estimated at up to $118 billion, or 2 percent of gross domestic product in 1995 terms. Initial estimates from Credit Suisse and Barclays on Monday put the cost at $180 billion while Mitsubishi UFJ Securities said the cost could run as high as 5 percent of GDP.

The rescue effort has included Japan’s largest military mobilization since the war, with 100,000 from the Self-Defence Force dispatched to the country’s stricken north-east. More than 2,400 shelters have been set up in schools, community centers and other public buildings in the region, taking in an estimated 450,000 evacuees as of Monday.

But in the worst affected areas survivors were spending a fourth night without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures, as tens of thousands of rescue workers struggled to reach them.

“People are exhausted both physically and mentally,” Yasunobu Sasaki, principal of a school converted into a shelter in Rikuzentakata, a nearly flattened village of 24,500 in the far north Iwate prefecture, told Reuters.

There was not enough food for three meals a day and no heating, he said. Sanitation was also a problem. His shelter has fewer than 10 temporary toilets and several makeshift wooden toilets with a hole in the ground.

“That’s not enough for the around 1,800 people here,” he said, adding that supplies of medicine for the chronically ill were dwindling.

All along the ravaged north-eastern coast, there were similar scenes of desperation and destruction. Forecasts of snow or rain in some regions on Wednesday added urgency to relief efforts.

In Miyagi, one of the worst affected prefectures in Japan’s northern region, Naoto Takeuchi, chief of Miyagi police, reported that hundreds of bodies had been found washed ashore on several beaches along its eastern peninsula.

Separately, according to Miyagi prefectural officials, 1,000 bodies were found in the coastal town of Minami Sanrikucho, where fears had been growing over the well-being of about 10,000 of the town’s 17,000 residents who could not be reached.

Japanese authorities’ response to Friday’s earthquake and tsunami has been coming under increasing scrutiny, although on the whole, the administration of Naoto Kan, prime minister, has looked relatively effective as it has overseen the rescue effort and sought to soothe public concerns about the growing nuclear emergency.

Low expectations may be helping: Mr Kan was unpopular before the disaster.