Japan Fights to Restore Water in Freezing Cold After Quake

Japan Forecasts Earthquake Damage May Swell to $309 Billion
A woman surveys the debris in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, Japan. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Millions of Japanese in regions hit by the tsunami and 9.0 earthquake 12 days ago remain without water as the government restores communications to remote towns and villages in freezing weather.

While about 90 percent of highways damaged by the temblor are open to the public, according to a United Nations report, temperatures in northeastern Japan dropped as low as minus 4.3 degrees Celsius (24.3 degrees Fahrenheit) this morning. About 875,000 households, or roughly 2 million people, are without water, the UN said.

“The situation is improving,” Filipe Ribeiro, general director of Doctors Without Borders, said in a telephone interview today after returning from the partially destroyed village of Minamisanriku in Miyagi prefecture. “But from the victim’s perspective it’s not enough.”

In Kesennuma, a Miyagi fishing village, Yayeko Komatsu, 53, said some water and electricity was restored on March 20, though the outskirts remain without services. Looking out onto a port area where the tsunami reduced buildings to twisted metal scraps, she said many residents who survived may never return.

‘Too Dangerous’

“A lot of people are saying they don’t want to come back and rebuild here,” she said, explaining she was in a fish-processing plant when the earthquake struck and workers began shouting to evacuate. “They say it’s too dangerous.”

Rescue workers came to pluck survivors from low-lying areas by helicopter three days after the quake, she said. She made it to higher ground in her car on roads clogged with other escaping motorists.

Police in the prefecture, where the death toll is at 5,607, are still looking for survivors as they gather corpses, Yuzuru Honda, a police spokesman said by telephone yesterday.

“We will continue our effort to look for the living while there is still a chance,” he said.

Miyagi officials have said they may need to relocate entire communities. Sendai, a city of 1 million, has compiled an extra budget of 17.7 billion yen ($220 million) as it struggles to restore gas and water supplies.

Rising Casualties

The overall toll from the disaster rose to 9,408 as of noon today, with a further 14,716 people missing, according to the National Police Agency in Tokyo. More than 268,000 people were in shelters as of last night, according to government statistics.

Rain and snow has complicated efforts to reach remote area and at times grounded helicopters, Ribeiro said. Still, most evacuation centers have heating, though workers are struggling to improve sanitary conditions, he said.

Japan resumed fuel shipments to affected areas on March 21, with Sendai Shiogama Port receiving its first vessel since the disaster, according to the transport ministry. A lack of fuel because of damaged ports and gas stations had hampered initial relief efforts, the UN said.

In the Iwate town of Ofunato, Yoriko Sugawara, 57, walks about 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) to a neighbor’s house each morning where there is a natural well. She cooks foods that can be stored for days to conserve water, she said.

“It was chaos inside the house,” she said of the falling bookshelves and television after the March 11 quake struck. “And that was only the beginning.”

Talking to Shelters

In addition to water there is still no electricity in parts of the prefecture, spokesman Kazuhiko Asukagawa said by phone today. Coordinating among 373 regional shelters is difficult because landlines are down, he said.

“We can only communicate by sending people on foot or by car or by relying on a small number of satellite phones,” he said. “With people desperate to know the status and whereabouts of their family members who could be in different shelters it makes communication a big challenge.”

Some of the housing facilities need heaters and fuel to cope with the cold, he said. Tomorrow’s forecast is for snow, according Japan Meteorological Agency.

Tokyo Electric said today lights are on in the control room at Fukushima Dai-Ichi’s reactor No. 3, while some lights are on at reactor No. 4. Reactors No. 5 and 6 are already supplied with electricity. Engineers have been unable to connect power to the No. 2 reactor because of high radiation readings, a spokesman for the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said today.

Radiation Released

Tokyo officials today advised not to give the city’s tap water to infants after iodine exceeding recommended levels was found at a water-treatment facility. Five kinds of radioactive materials released by damaged fuel rods have been detected in the sea, Tokyo Electric said in a report on its website.

Levels of Iodine-131, which increases the risk of thyroid cancer, were 127 times higher than normal in a sample of seawater, the company said. Seawater readings showed Cesium-134 was 25 times normal and Cesium-137 was 17 times higher, and cobalt has also been detected, Tokyo Electric said.

Four quakes of 5-magnitude or greater struck eastern Honshu, Japan, today within an hour starting at 7:12 a.m. local time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey website. There was no impact on the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant itself, the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said in a statement.

Hot Meals

The 83,165 evacuees remaining in Fukushima have received supplies though they want more hot meals, Eiichi Yamada, a spokesman for the prefecture’s disaster headquarters said. They also want updates on radiation levels, he said.

“Now we are facing a new challenge on how to compensate farmers affected by radiation,” he said. “We cannot even assess how much it will cost as contamination may spread from milk and spinach and other leafy vegetables to seafood.”

Japanese authorities have barred the export of milk and vegetables from the four areas affected by the plant’s radiation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration yesterday issued an Import Alert barring shipments of milk and fresh produce from those regions.

Japan agriculture ministry said yesterday it would check farmland, including rice paddies, for radioactive contamination. About 1,200 evacuees from Fukushima prefecture, who lived closest to the nuclear plant, have been moved to a relocation center north of Tokyo, the Saitama Super Arena.

In Kesennuma, resident Kiyoshi Igari, 65, was fishing near the sea when the earthquake struck. He returned by bicycle to the third floor of an apartment building about a minute before the wave carried burning tanker ships and cars kilometers inland, he said. Few structures near his apartment complex remain.

“There are lots of people here who love it as a hometown and will want to rebuild,” he said. “What people need is low-cost housing and they need it fast.”

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