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Earthquake, Tsunami Victims Seek Aid, Shelter Amid Continuing Aftershocks

March 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Later, there was a report of a new fire at the same reactor that had caught fire earlier in the day.

Also today, the U.S. Navy moved some of its ships to the western side of Japan, away from the drift of radiation. And the rising risk of exposure touched off new fears in people still shaken by the quake and tsunami.

Alex Thomson reports from the town of Ofunato, up the coast from Sendai.

ALEX THOMSON: Every day across the quake zone, the queues for food, water and petrol are getting longer and longer.

MAN: We just want to stay away from Sendai. So, we have got to go…

ALEX THOMSON: Now fears over radiation mean hurried plans from some to leave town.

WOMAN: All right, let’s try…

MAN: So, let’s make a base here. We can make a base.

ALEX THOMSON: Today, our business lay to the north.

They have just managed to blast a way in to Ofunato, bulldozing aside the tsunami’s wake. Ofunato — a place utterly surrendered to the tsunami, Japan’s rising sun flag in tatters on this cold, sunless day. A force which could pulverize the heavy lift digger somehow leaves intact the sign pointing people to the tsunami shelter.

I don’t doubt that Daimachi Hill was a place of refuge for many during those terrifying moments last Friday afternoon. If they have survived, they can look down now on this, the industrial sector of their town, completely ruined by the tsunami.

The police here in Japan are now saying at least 3,000 people are confirmed to have been killed in this disaster. But of course, tens, hundreds of thousands have been shifted out from where they were living. They’re now homeless. And the weather, well, it’s turned again. It’s much, much colder here today and wet, a significant factor if you have no longer got any home to go to.

But some good news at last: The people of Ofunato certainly do have a place to go, and what a place it is, the town’s magnificent, undamaged theater.

And it’s here we find Aya Shishido and little Shunta.

AYA SHISHIDO, tsunami survivor (through translator): For us, we get one bowl of rice for every meal, which is OK. We have got enough nappies, but he needs baby food. And all we have got is hard rice, which is difficult for him.

ALEX THOMSON: How long they will be here for, nobody can possibly say right now, the messages imploring loved ones to get in touch, a tourist brochure for Ofunato lying in the rubble here, a happier yesterday to be treasured here, where life must pick up and custom be maintained, like playing public music every day at 5:00 p.m. sharp.

Each Japanese town has its own tune, and this town’s, as it happens, is “Yesterday.”


GWEN IFILL: The Japanese government today confirmed at least 3,300 people killed in the disaster — 450,000 are living in temporary shelters.

And another strong aftershock hit with a magnitude of 6.4. The epicenter was in central Japan, but it could be felt 55 miles away in Tokyo.

There were also tales of triumph. A 70-year-old woman suffering only hypothermia was found alive. Search teams also found a baby and a 20-year-old man alive in the rubble.

Still, for many survivors, there was little except devastation and the memory of a horror that hit with little warning.

James Mates reports from the town of Otsuchi, where little is left.

JAMES MATES: We stood amid the silence of Otsuchi and looked from horizon to horizon. They were picking over the remains of a town that no longer exists.

As if earthquake, then tsunami were not enough, no sooner had the water retreated than fire engulfed this town. Fueled by kerosene from cooking stoves and the wooden remains of thousands of houses, it burnt for two days and left nothing. Walking through it now, the stench of smoke is still everywhere.

On Friday morning of last week, this was home to 17,000 people. Only 5,000 have been accounted for. They’re now calling this town (SPEAKING JAPANESE) — the lost town. And it’s very easy to see why. Anything the water left behind, the fire has completely consumed.

There is nothing that tells you how Otsuchi once looked. Where streets ran, where houses stood, it is a shattering sight. We found Taka Akigoto, a town counselor here, clambering back over the ruins. He had been looking for his home.

“It’s all gone,” he told us. Then he said, with a wry smile: “It was supposed to be earthquake-proof. But my family is OK.”

Every few minutes, the rescue teams were pulling bodies out, four here left for collection, another covered with plastic sheeting and a simple note attached saying where and when it was found. They do their best to give dignity to the dead, but there are simply too many to stand on ceremony.

Juniichi Sendate had been at work elsewhere, and that’s why he is alive today. He knew why this disaster had been so deadly.

“After the earthquake, the waves began almost immediately,” he told us. “It was only about 15 minutes, so there wasn’t enough time.”

Two old friends, Tayiko and Ryoko, clasped each other as they discovered both had lived through this. It’s a small ray of happiness in what is otherwise uniformly depressing.

Above them, helicopters are trying to douse the flames that still burn on the hillsides around Otsuchi, because the devastation here is not just in the town, but for miles up the valley, into areas that had never been thought of as being at risk from tsunami.

The population was certainly aware of the danger. The sign warns them this is a tsunami inundation area. The trouble is it says the danger area ends right here. In fact, the power of this tsunami wave took it for well over a mile further down this valley. It is no surprise that the poor people who lived here were caught completely unawares.

Inevitably, their fate is being overshadowed by the fate of the town itself. Most of the survivors we met today were bewildered, confused. But how can you take in the fact that you have lost everything you own, many of those you knew, that in a few brutal minutes, your future was taken from you?

Takafumi Sazaki spoke for many of them.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” he told us. And then, looking off into the distance, he said: “The whole town has gone. The town next door is gone. It’s as if I’m living in a dream.”