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Japan’s Evacuees Battle Flu, Survive on Rice Balls and Bread

Relief workers in Japan’s earthquake-stricken region are struggling to provide many residents with just two meals a day, while influenza is spreading at some evacuation centers, local authorities said.

In Miyagi, the hardest-hit prefecture, shelters continue to feed people rice balls and bread even after restored utilities allowed many who still have houses to go home. Medical teams are struggling to access some areas in Iwate prefecture to deliver medicine as flu is spreading at some of the 383 local evacuation centers, authorities there said.

“Medication for flu is being delivered," said Naoto Wakuishi, a spokesman for Iwate prefecture, in northeast Japan. "But transportation is tough, and even if staff do go in, it’s hard for them to get around."

Shortages of fuel and food continued to complicate relief efforts more than two weeks after a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan’s northeast coastline, wiping entire towns off the map. In Miyagi, authorities may need to provide basic needs for evacuees for two to three months, the time it may take to it build temporary homes, a spokesman for the local disaster control headquarters said.

Two Meals a Day

The number of evacuees in Miyagi fell to about 86,000 today from a peak of about 300,000 as people returned to their homes, said the spokesman, who asked to be identified only by his last name, Tokairin. With food in short supply, many still come back to shelters to eat, he said.

‘‘We need about 320,000 meals a day, even if everyone only has two meals a day," he said. ‘‘It’s tough for vendors to provide."

The death toll from the disaster rose to 10,418 as of 3 p.m. local time, with 17,072 people missing, according to the National Police Agency in Tokyo. The total number of evacuees was 244,439, including 86,308 in Fukushima prefecture and 43,728 in Iwate, according to the police.

Those suffering from flu in Iwate are being separated from other evacuees to limit the spread of disease, Wakuishi said. There is a shortage of sanitary goods and clothes, and people are suffering from fatigue and a lack of privacy or access to baths after two weeks of evacuation, he said.

Radiation Fears

"We worry about the health of evacuees," said Keiichi Sakamoto, a spokesman for Fukushima prefecture, home to the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, where Tokyo Electric Power Co. is battling to contain radiation leaks after reactors were crippled by the earthquake and tsunami.

Fear about the radiation leaks, which have prompted evacuations of residents living near the power plant, is making some suppliers reluctant to deliver goods to the area, Sakamoto said today by phone. In addition to gasoline and heating oil, evacuation centers in Fukushima are short on basic items including underwear for women and babies, he said.

"It’s important necessary goods be delivered," Sakamoto said. "We want people to know that areas outside a 30-kilometer radius from the plant are safe."

Shortages of gasoline are making it difficult for people trying to relocate, and there is little public transportation, Sakamoto said. Even with snow on the ground today, people don’t have fuel to heat their homes, he said.

‘We Want Fuel’

"Many cars are lined up at gasoline stations every day," Sakamoto said. "We want fuel so badly."

Some progress has been made in restoring transportation infrastructure in Miyagi, Tokairin said.

"Most of the roads have recovered and are now accessible," he said. "This is an area where people can’t live without access to cars, even before the quake. People are finally starting to have access to fuel, so I am hoping this can help give momentum to the recovery."

The main expressway between Tokyo and the most-affected region opened March 24 for the first time since the earthquake, while bullet-train lines in the area resumed partial service.

In Iwate, "essential utilities like gas, electricity, water and phone lines still haven’t been restored," Wakuishi said. "People still can’t use land lines at all and are unable to contact their families in other parts of Japan."

Still, electricity is gradually coming back and roads have been cleared, allowing people who were isolated after the quake to be reached, he said.

"Saving lives used to be the priority, but now we are working toward restoration," Wakuishi said.

Bread, Rice Balls

Japan’s self-defense forces are helping provide food and baths for evacuees, according to Wakuishi and Miyagi’s Tokairin. Some stoves and fuel have been arriving in Miyagi, and food is being sent in via land and air transportation from other parts of Japan, Tokairin said, though the supply still isn’t stable.

"Sometimes the plane doesn’t arrive, and because food is being sent from far away, it’s not delivered until evening," he said.

Evacuation shelters have been requesting clothes, socks, underwear, diapers and sanitary products, Tokairin said. Areas with electricity are in need of washing machines and vacuum cleaners to keep clothes and shelters clean, and televisions to access information, he said.

"The task is to provide some ease to the life of people at the shelters," Tokairin said. "It’s difficult for the evacuees to go on with just bread and rice balls for two weeks."

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