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Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami Survivors Begin Digging Out as Death Toll Climbs

March 14, 2011 at 6:16 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Thousands of bodies of earthquake and tsunami victims washed up today in northeastern Japan. The confirmed death toll was near 1,900, but there were estimates of more than 10,000 dead in the Miyagi region, hardest hit by the catastrophe. Meanwhile, survivors struggled to find food, water and shelter, as engineers labored to prevent a nuclear disaster.

Four days into the disaster, and the devastation is almost beyond words and spreads as far as the eye can see: whole towns gone, in their place, mounds of wreckage. Today, new images emerged capturing the moment Friday’s tsunami ripped through a residential area near Sendai. The amateur video was taken by people who ran to high ground after a warning.

From there, they watched in horror as the enormous tidal wave swept through, uprooting trees and houses. Video from up the coast in Kamaishi showed a giant wall of water leveling the town. Residents had 11 minutes to reach higher ground after warning sirens sounded. In the aftermath, the hunt for survivors continued, with many of the homeless still searching for their loved ones.

MAN (through translator): My relatives and friends are missing after the tsunami destroyed the village. They were all washed away.

GWEN IFILL: And there was also escalating fear over a nuclear plant that lost its cooling system. A second hydrogen explosion rocked the Daiichi nuclear station in Fukushima, sending a huge cloud of smoke and steam into the air. Eleven workers were hurt.

On Saturday, a similar explosion tore through a different reactor building at the same plant. Fuel rods in one were fully exposed at least twice today, and authorities continued dumping in seawater to cool down the nuclear cores.

In Vienna, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said the situation is unlikely to turn into an all-out crisis. And Japanese officials said the containment shells surrounding both reactors remain intact, with no evidence of widespread radiation exposure.

YUKIO EDANO, Japanese chief Cabinet secretary (through translator): It is true that irradiated materials which are not of a level that can cause harm to humans have been emitted, but they are moving within limits. So, there is no need for unreasonable worry. And I think people should respond calmly.

GWEN IFILL: At the same time, 22 people tested positive for contamination, three of them with serious exposure.

Others waited patiently as medical teams in head-to-toe protective suits used Geiger counters and handheld scanners to check for radiation. And nearly 200,000 people have been evacuated to temporary shelters.

WOMAN (through translator): The town’s response was way too slow. And that’s why things have ended up this way.

MAN (through translator): They said it was safe and there was nothing to worry about. And I trusted them completely.

GWEN IFILL: Offshore, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan moved farther out to sea after three of its helicopters flew into a low-level radiation plume 60 miles from the coast.

But even without the radiation worries, there are still growing concerns over shortages of water, food and power. In Sendai, closer to the quake’s epicenter, grocery stores remained shut.

MAN (through translator): My family and friends are all gathered together in one house. But now we’re running out of food, so I’m starting to worry.

GWEN IFILL: There were long, orderly lines for Red Cross water tankers to dispense drinking water, while lines for gasoline stretched city blocks. The stations that still had supplies were limiting drivers to the equivalent of $2 worth of fuel.

Financial markets were rocked as well by a broad sell-off today amid fears of economic fallout. The widespread power shortage have halted production at Toyota plants and other factories around the country.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government has sent 100,000 troops to lead the relief effort. And at the government’s request, the U.S. sent two 75- person urban search-and-rescue teams, each with six dogs trained to detect live victims.

President Obama again stressed the U.S. commitment today.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have said directly to the prime minister of Japan, Prime Minister Kan, that the United States will continue to offer any assistance we can as Japan recovers from multiple disasters.

GWEN IFILL: Overall, more than 90 nations have offered Japan assistance. Fifteen of them are expected to send rescue crews within the next few days.

RAY SUAREZ: The scope of Japan’s suffering is being told in towns that dot the coast, and each has its own story of loss without reckoning.

One such place is Rikuzentakata, where James Mates has the first of a series of reports from Independent Television News.

JAMES MATES: … will tell you that this is the town of Rikuzentakata. Your eyes will tell you something very different, because Rikuzentakata, home just 72 hours ago to almost 30,000 people, has been wiped from the face of the earth.

The tsunami came, destroyed everything in its path, and then took much of what it had destroyed back out to sea. The rest, it left heaps and splintered. Almost nothing built by man was spared.

What happened here is almost beyond description. It seems that an entire town, a thriving coastal community, has been picked up, smashed to matchwood, and then dumped a mile or so up the valley from where it started.

I’m standing on what I think is a piece of wall, but it is on top of cars. And they are on top of bits of roof. We know that all this happened within an hour or so of that first earthquake. It doesn’t bear thinking about how many people would not have had time to get away.

These are people who rarely show emotion in public, but stoicism at this time is too hard. They search through the lists of names posted on boards in refuges and evacuation centers of those who are known to be safe. Across the room, survivors have posted handwritten messages on walls, asking family, friends, former neighbors to get in touch if somehow they have made it.

In a school gym, the homeless of Rikuzentakata wait patiently for evacuation. There will be no going home.

WOMAN: My family is mother and sister and me, but my mother was lost.

JAMES MATES: Your mother is lost?

WOMAN: Lost.

JAMES MATES: I’m very sorry.

These people lived because they were out of town as the tsunami struck, or because they got lucky in the scramble to escape, or, like this family, because they happened to live on higher ground.

“It was a large earthquake,” she told me, “but where we were, we felt safe. But when I looked down, I saw the roads in town were jammed with cars. And that’s why I think there were so few survivors.”

As we had been filming inside the evacuation center, rescue workers have recovered another body from the debris.

 

They have long since given up searching for survivors here. Finding the dead and preventing the spread of disease is all they’re concerned with now.

Minamisanriku was one of the first to be reached, but perhaps the hardest hit of all, the town where 10,000 are still unaccounted for. They have now found 1,000 bodies here, ambulances making regular trips in and out today to collect them. Another thousand have been recovered from the shoreline nearby.

Every day, there are aftershocks, and with each one, a threat of a new tsunami. Today, an alert from Japan’s Meteorological Agency sent rescue workers and police scurrying to higher ground.

A change in wind direction and an all-clear on the tsunami alert allowed us to leave Minamisanriku. As we left, we found Kudo Shinske standing on the concrete foundations of what had once been his house. His family was OK, he told us.

We had a vehicle waiting and a hotel to go to. He no longer had a possession in the world.

GWEN IFILL: Alex Thomson has our next report. He’s just down the coast in the fishing port of Kesennuma. Much of the town and its central business district now lie in ruins.

ALEX THOMSON: The port of Kesennuma this afternoon, the cries of distant crows the loudest noise that you can hear, the town’s giant tuna fishing fleet stranded where the ebbing tsunami had left them, all over this town.

People are coming back here. They can’t quite take it in.

Last Friday afternoon minutes before the tsunami, the town’s tuna fleet weren’t anywhere near here. They were at anchor right out in the bay. But the damage done to the tuna fishing industry and these vessels is as nothing compared to the damage in some ways that was inflicted by the boats and the tsunami right here.

Suddenly, there’s a man running through the rubble looking for his lost father. Then we find his dad.

WOMAN: It’s his house here.

ALEX THOMSON: His house? Where? There’s just a puddle. But it turns out, this was his house.

WOMAN: And what was this? What was this?

YASUO MATSUMATO, tsunami survivor: My house.

ALEX THOMSON: Yasuo Matsumato, a businessman, looks like he’s been crying for several days. He won’t forget last Friday.

YASUO MATSUMATO (through translator): All at once, this wave just came towards us. I have never seen anything like it. From down low like this, you couldn’t outrun it.

ALEX THOMSON: It must have — it must have been terrifying.

YASUO MATSUMATO (through translator): Quite terrifying. You felt your time had come.

ALEX THOMSON: Ships capsized, dumped across the town, many of them burnt out, at least one still smoldering.

Across the bay, helicopters are flying relays round the clock to deal with a forest fire on the island across the sound. The quakes ruptured every fuel tank for miles here, starting intense fires, including this one now spreading across this island — this small tender the only boat that’s working to get the firefighters in and frightened residents out. This woman had been stuck there for three days. And the blaze is spreading.

TOSHIKO MOGI, tsunami survivor (through translator): The only information we’re getting is from relatives and from men on the island. They say people have been swept away and their houses are gone.

ALEX THOMSON: While some towns are obliterated along this coast, here, it’s an entire port, an entire sector of industry simply taken out.

And there is Yasuo Matsumato’s grandchildren, two of the 14 who lived where now there’s just a puddle, foundations and a stranded fishing fleet.

RAY SUAREZ: In addition to the thousands of dead in Japan, untold numbers are injured.

Angus Walker is in Ishinomaki, where a hospital is trying to cope with human suffering beyond imagining.

ANGUS WALKER: Four days on, and they’re still finding bodies. This was a small town 15 miles inland. As the corpse of the elderly man was taken away, a sergeant told me his unit needed food and water. If the army needs supplies, what hope is there for anyone else?

Until Friday, this was one of Ishinomaki’s quiet district hospitals. Now camp beds fill the corridors. It’s mainly the elderly who are suffering the most. Look into the eyes of this 92-year-old woman, 26 when the atom bombs were dropped on Japan. Did she ever expect nature to match the destructive force of war?

Severe damage to the roads along Japan’s northeastern coast mean it’s very difficult to get aid to the victims of this disaster. And look at this. The force of the earthquake has flung pieces of tarmac like playing cards.

Twenty-six-year-old Shamutsu Yasuhiro, his wife and friends had just waded out of their village. He cradled his 10-day-old daughter.

What’s the name of the baby?

MAN: Lucky.

ANGUS WALKER: Lucky?

She’s lucky to be alive.