TAKAJO, 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 mounting humanitarian, nuclear and economic crisis in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami that likely killed thousands.
Millions of people spent a third night without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures along the devastated northeastern coast. Meanwhile, a third reactor at a nuclear power plant lost its cooling capacity, raising fears of a meltdown, while the stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries, including big names such as Toyota and Honda.
A Japanese police official said 1,000 washed up bodies were found scattered today across the coastline of Miyagi prefecture. The official declined to be named, citing department policy.
The discovery raised the official death toll to about 2,800 but the Miyagi police chief has said that more than 10,000 people are estimated to have died in his province alone, which has a population of 2.3 million.
Friday’s double-headed tragedy has caused unimaginable deprivation for people of this industrialized 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 gasoline. 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.
He said authorities were receiving just 10 percent of the food and other supplies they need. Even body bags and coffins are running so short the government may turn to foreign funeral homes for help, he said.
“We have requested funeral homes across the nation to send us many body bags and coffins. But we simply don’t have enough,” he told The Associated Press. “We just did not expect such a thing to happen. It’s just overwhelming.”
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 today. 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 barked out orders: “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.
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 power lines and household goods.
Helicopters buzzed overhead, surveying the destruction that spanned the horizon. Ships were flipped over near roads, a half mile inland. Officials said one-third of the city of 38,000 people was flooded and thousands were missing.
According to officials, more than 2,800 people have been confirmed dead – including the 1,000 bodies found today – and more than 1,400 were missing. Another 1,900 were injured.
“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 60 miles north of Soma. Just then, an emergency worker came over and told him that if the station opens at all, it would pump gasoline 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-liter 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 29,000 gallons of gasoline 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. According to public broadcaster NHK, some 310,000 people are living in emergency shelters or with relatives. Another 24,000 people are stranded, it said.
One reason for the loss of power is the damage to at least three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant. One by one, each reactor has lost the ability to cool down, the latest on Monday. Explosions have destroyed the containment buildings of the other two reactors.
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.
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 12-mile radius were ordered to stay inside homes following the blast. AP journalists felt today’s explosion 25 miles away.
The U.S. 7th Fleet, which deployed ships and aircraft to Japan to provide relief, moved away from the coast after discovering low-level radioactive contamination from a plume of smoke and steam released during the blasts.
But the fleet said the dose of radiation was about the same as one month’s normal exposure to natural background radiation in the environment.
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 to 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 injected 15 trillion yen ($184 billion) into money markets today to stem worries about the world’s third-largest economy.
Stocks fell today on the first business day after the disasters. The benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average shed nearly 634 points, or 6.2 percent, to 9,620.49, extending losses from Friday. Escalating concerns over the fallout of the disaster triggered a plunge that hit all sectors. The broader Topix index lost 7.5 percent.
Japan’s economy has been ailing for 20 years, barely managing to eke out weak growth between slowdowns. It is saddled by a massive public debt that, at 200 percent of gross domestic product, is the biggest among industrialized nations.
Preliminary estimates put repair costs from the earthquake and tsunami 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.
By Jay Alabaster and Todd Pitman