Japan Faces Rising Death Toll; Crisis Sets In
Millions face fourth night in freezing northeast devastated by earthquake, tsunami without food, water, heat
"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 hardest hit.
Sato said deliveries of food and other supplies were just 10 percent of what is needed. Body bags and coffins were running so short that 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 said. "We just did not expect such a thing to happen. It's just overwhelming."
The pulverized coast has been hit by hundreds of aftershocks since Friday, the latest one a 6.2 magnitude quake that was followed by a new tsunami scare Monday.
As sirens wailed, soldiers abandoned their search operations and told residents of the devastated shoreline in Soma, the worst hit town in Fukushima prefecture, to run to safety.
They barked out orders: "Find high ground! Get out of here!" Several soldiers were seen leading an old woman up a muddy hillside. The warning turned out to be a false alarm and interrupted the efforts of search parties who 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 a jumble of broken timber, plastic sheets, roofs, sludge, twisted cars, tangled power lines and household goods.
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.
Though Japanese officials have refused to speculate on how high the death toll could rise, an expert who dealt with the 2004 Asian tsunami offered a dire outlook.
"It's a miracle really, if it turns out to be less than 10,000" dead, said Hery Harjono, a senior geologist with the Indonesian Science Institute, who was closely involved with the aftermath of the earlier disaster that killed 230,000 people — of which only 184,000 bodies were found.
He drew parallels between the two disasters — notably that many bodies in Japan may have been sucked out to sea or remain trapped beneath rubble as they did in Indonesia's hardest-hit Aceh province. But he also stressed that Japan's infrastructure, high-level of preparedness and city planning to keep houses away from the shore could mitigate its human losses.