Japan quake toll could number in tens of thousands

Los Angeles TimesMarch 13, 2011 

SENDAI, Japan — Japanese authorities say thousands may have died in the massive earthquake and tsunami that left many survivors stranded or shivering in makeshift evacuation centers that were running low on supplies Monday.

In Miyagi, one the three hardest-hit prefectures, at least 10,000 were killed, police spokesman Go Sugawara told The Associated Press late Sunday. Only 400 people had been confirmed dead in Miyagi, which has a population of 2.3 million.

Elsewhere, about 1,800 people were confirmed dead Sunday _ including 200 bodies found along the coast, according to The Associated Press. About 1,900 were injured and more than 1,400 were missing late Sunday. More than 500,000 people have been forced to evacuate from quake- and tsunami-affected regions, Kyodo News reported. Televised reports showed hundreds of thousands of hungry survivors huddled in darkened emergency centers, cut off from rescuers, aid and electricity. At least 1.4 million households had gone without water since the quake struck and some 1.9 million households were without electricity, Kyodo reported.

"We have no choice but to deal with the situation on the premise that it (the death toll) will undoubtedly be numbered in the ten thousands," Naoto Takeuchi, head of the Miyagi prefectural police, told a Kyodo reporter during a local disaster task force meeting.

A Los Angeles County Fire Department search and rescue team arrived at Misawa Air Base about 400 miles north of Tokyo at about 3 p.m. local time Sunday with 74 tons of equipment, including swift-water rescue gear and six search dogs, spokesman Don Kunitomi said.

They joined two other crews from Fairfax County, Va., and the United Kingdom who are scheduled to travel together to Miyagi to aid search-and-rescue efforts.

"We are glad to accept all the help we can get to assist the people of Japan," said Col. Michael Rothstein, 35th Fighter Wing commander at Misawa. "We will do whatever is in our means to support their efforts in this time of need." There were some dramatic rescues of tsunami survivors Sunday, including a 60-year-old man who had been waiting for help since he was swept out to sea Friday.

Hiromitsu Shinkawa was spotted by rescuers at 12:40 p.m. local time nine miles off shore by the crew of a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer, according to Jiji Press.

Shinkawa, from the devastated city of Minamisoma, was conscious and in "good condition" after the rescue, Japanese officials said.

"I ran away after learning that the tsunami was coming," Shinkawa told rescuers, according to Jiji Press. "But I turned back to pick up something at home, when I was washed away. I was rescued while I was hanging to the roof from my house."

In Rikuzentakata, a port city of about 20,000 leveled by the tsunami, Etsuko Koyama escaped the water rushing through the third floor of her home but was unable to hold on to her daughter's hand, she told Japanese broadcaster NHK. The girl was swept away by floodwaters and had still not been found Sunday, Koyama said.

"I haven't given up hope yet," Koyama told NHK, wiping tears from her eyes. "I saved myself, but I couldn't save my daughter." About 5,000 houses in Rikuzentakata were submerged by the tsunami, and most of the 7,200 houses in Yamada were also submerged, Kyodo reported. In Otsuchi, the tsunami swept away the town office.

A young man told NHK what ran through his mind as tsunami waters rose and he watched his house wash away toward a nearby nursing home. Eventually he, too, was swept away, he said.

"I thought I was dying and I was coasting through the water. I thought of my family, and I decided to make every effort to survive," Tatsuro Ishikawa he said as he sat in striped hospital pajamas after being rescued, his face cut and bruised.

Additional foreign search-and-rescue teams arrived in Japan on Sunday, and 88 governments and six international institutions have offered assistance with recovery efforts, the Japanese Foreign Ministry announced.

Adding to the misery were a series of more than 40 punishing aftershocks, three of magnitude 6 or more Sunday.

The Japan Meteorological Agency said there was a 70 percent probability of a magnitude 7 quake in the next three days. Officials from Tokyo Electric Power Co. said they would begin rationing power Monday to the 45 million people they serve to prevent Tokyo and nearby prefectures from experiencing massive blackouts, Kyodo reported.

Government officials said that the region-specific outages would affect a broad range of things used in everyday life such as traffic signals, medical institutions and train operations, and possibly result in water supply disruptions.

The power rationing is expected to last until the end of April, Kyodo reported.

Banri Kaieda, Japan's trade minister, warned that the country's quake-damaged eastern and northeastern areas may suffer electrical shortages and urged large companies to limit electricity use, Kyodo reported.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan told reporters Sunday that his country was facing its most difficult challenge since World War II and called on his people to unite in the face of a devastating earthquake and tsunami and potential nuclear crisis.

"This is the toughest crisis in Japan's 65 years of postwar history," Kan said during a televised news conference. "I'm convinced that we can overcome the crisis."

In his remarks to the media, Kan said 12,000 people had been rescued, including about 5,800 people from Kesennuma, a city in Miyagi prefecture hit especially hard by the tsunami. Kan said 100,000 soldiers would be deployed to help quake victims. While search-and-rescue teams struggled to reach battered parts of the northeast obstructed by mud and debris, new fears emerged

over a meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima nuclear complex and trouble at two other nuclear plants. Kyodo News Agency was reporting early Monday that a cooling system pump had stopped at the Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant in Ibaraki prefecture operated by Japan Atomic Power Company. The same issue sparked the problems that have befallen the Fukushima reactors.

U.N. nuclear watchdog officials said Japanese authorities had notified them of an emergency at another plant farther north, at Onagawa. But Japan's nuclear safety agency denied problems at the Onagawa plant, run by Tohoku Electric Power Co, noting that radioactive releases from the Fukushima Daiichi complex had been detected at Onagawa, but that they were within safe levels.

Workers at Fukushima used seawater Sunday in a desperate attempt to cool down three damaged nuclear reactors. One of the reactors lost its outer shell in a hydrogen blast Saturday and another was under threat of doing the same, said the country's chief Cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano.

"Everybody in my neighborhood is being evacuated," said Teruko Tsuchiya, 53, who lives four miles from the nuclear plant and was lining up outside a 7-11 convenience store waiting for food. "The buses are going back and forth. People are scared, of course, but they are trying to stay calm and it is proceeding in an orderly fashion."

Japan's nuclear and industrial safety agency said more than 70 people were believed to have been exposed to elevated levels of radiation, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported. Most were waiting to be airlifted from a field at the high school in Futaba, near Fukushima.

The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna said it was told by Japanese officials that they would distribute iodine tablets to residents near the plant. Iodine is known to protect against thyroid cancer that can develop from radiation poisoning. Government officials tried to allay fears, saying the level of radiation was not high enough to pose a serious health risk.

"Even if a blast were to occur in the building containing the (other) reactor, the government doesn't think the levels of radiation would affect the health of residents who have evacuated the area," Edano said. "But the fact that we can't rule out the possibility of a blast is likely to cause some concerns."

The Ronald Reagan, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, was anchored off the coast of Sendai on Sunday, said Stephen Valley, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Japan. The nuclear-powered ship is being used as a floating refueling station for Japanese military and coast guard helicopters flying rescue missions in the area and delivering emergency food supplies.

While the full extent of the destruction was not yet clear Monday, the catastrophe could be the most expensive in modern history. Losses from the quake, tsunami and fires will total at least $100 billion, including $20 billion in damage to residences and $40 billion in damage to infrastructure such as roads, rail and port facilities, Oakland, Calif.-based catastrophe modeling firm Eqecat estimated.

Total property losses from the quake alone could range from $14.5 billion to $34.6 billion, according to an analysis by Boston-based consulting group AIR Worldwide. ___

(Times staff writers Laura King in Tokyo, David Pierson in Beijing and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Los Angeles contributed to this report.) _

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