Fuel Shortage After Japan Quake Forces Midnight Gas Lines

Fuel shortages are hampering efforts to get relief to as many as 260,000 people in shelters two weeks after the country’s record 9.0 earthquake and tsunami as motorists in some areas wait overnight to fill their cars.

“There is a severe shortage of gasoline,” Keiichi Sakamoto, a spokesman for Fukushima prefecture’s disaster headquarters said by phone. “People are lining up as early as midnight the night before.”

While the main expressway between Tokyo and the most-affected region opened yesterday morning for the first time since the earthquake, residents without gasoline still can’t reach shelters, Sakamoto said. The prefecture’s governor has appeared on television to appeal to national authorities for aid filling cars, he said.

The combined number of dead and missing from the March 11 disaster rose to 27,509 as of 3 p.m. local time, with the number of confirmed deaths at 10,066, according to the National Police Agency in Tokyo.

More than 23,000 people from Fukushima, the site of the damaged Dai-Ichi nuclear plant that has leaked radiation into the country’s vegetables and water supply, have relocated to other prefectures, according to a United Nations report.

Bullet train lines within the area of northeastern Japan resumed partial service yesterday, according to the websites of Iwate Prefecture and East Japan Railway Co.

Limited Supply

“While the situation is improving, gasoline is being prioritized for emergency vehicles so supplies to the general population are still limited,” Miyagi prefecture spokesman Motoi Otsuki said today by telephone. “Lines are at least a few hundred meters, sometimes circling around the block once or twice.”

Cold weather has also complicated relief efforts, with temperatures forecast to drop to minus 1 degree Celsius (30.2 degrees Fahrenheit) in Iwate prefecture overnight, and 1 degree in Miyagi, the areas hardest hit by the tsunami.

There is enough food in areas affected by the disaster, though necessities such as toothbrushes, powdered milk, underwear, clothing and female products are still needed, Kazuo Shimizu, a spokesman for Iwate prefecture’s disaster headquarters, said by telephone today. There are 42,839 people in 380 shelters in the area and 8,800 temporary homes are under construction, he said.

Cracked Core

Japan’s nuclear regulator today said one reactor core at the Fukushima power plant may be cracked and leaking radiation. Two workers were hospitalized yesterday with radiation burns after stepping in water near the No. 3 reactor, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman at the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Japan today advised more people living close to the nuclear plant to evacuate because basic goods are in short supply, while assuring them that radiation levels haven’t risen. The recommendation applies to residents living between 20 kilometers (12 miles) and 30 kilometers from the Dai-Ichi facility. The government previously evacuated everyone living closer to the plant.

Radioactive cesium above the government limit was found on komatsuna, a leafy vegetable known as Japanese mustard spinach, harvested in Tokyo’s Edogawa ward, authorities said yesterday. That indicates radioactive elements have spread 220 kilometers south of the Fukushima plant.

Wind Patterns

Weather will drive radiation from the Fukushima plant over the Pacific Ocean today, Austria’s Meteorological and Geophysics Center reported, citing data from the United Nations nuclear-test ban treaty organization. Wind will carry the radionuclides for a “short while” inland, the center said on its website.

Reactors at Fukushima may have released as much as 20 percent of the radioactive iodine and up to 60 percent of the radioactive cesium that resulted from the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, according to the report yesterday.

Tokyo authorities have begun handing out bottled water to families after determining that tap water may be unsafe for babies. The government has also asked farmers to keep cows and cattle in barns to prevent milk contamination.

Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia have banned imports of vegetables and fruits harvested in five quake-stricken prefectures. Singapore suspended imports of milk and milk products, seafood and meat from those areas of Japan. The U.S. authorized seizure of spinach from four prefectures and milk from Fukushima prefecture.

Lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan met yesterday to discuss measures to cope with the disaster, which Prime Minister Naoto Kan has called the gravest since World War II. Kan is considering setting up a reconstruction agency to oversee relief and rebuilding after the quake caused damage estimated at as much as 25 trillion yen ($309 billion), an amount almost four times the hit imposed by Hurricane Katrina on the U.S.

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