/ 15 March 2011

Humanitarian crisis deepens in Japan

Humanitarian Crisis Deepens In Japan

A widening cloud of radiation on Tuesday added to the misery of millions of people in Japan’s devastated north-east, already short of water and food and trying to keep warm in near-freezing temperatures.

As bodies washed up on the coast from Friday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, injured survivors, children and elderly crammed into makeshift shelters, often without medicine. By Monday, 550 000 people had been evacuated after the earthquake and tsunami that killed at least 10 000.

Panic swept Tokyo after a rise in radioactive levels around an earthquake-hit nuclear power plant north of the city, causing some to leave the capital and others to stock up on food and supplies.

The humanitarian crisis was unfolding on multiple fronts — from a sudden rise in orphaned children to shortages of water, food, medicine and electricity, to overflowing toilets in packed shelters and erratic care of traumatised survivors.

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“People are exhausted both physically and mentally,” said Yasunobu Sasaki, the principal of a school converted into a shelter in Rikuzentakata, a nearly flattened village of 24 500 people in far-northern Iwate prefecture.

Sanitation was a also problem. His shelter has fewer than 10 temporary toilets and several makeshift wooden toilets with a hole in the ground.

“That’s not enough for the about 1 800 people here,” Sasaki said, adding medicine for the chronically ill was dwindling.

Local officials have lost contact with about 30 000 people, according to a survey by Kyodo News, raising concerns of a dramatic increase in the number of dead as authorities grapple with Japan’s biggest emergency since World War II.

Roads and rail, power and ports have been crippled across much of the north-east of Japan’s main island Honshu, hampering relief efforts. The government has mobilised 100 000 soldiers to deliver food, water and fuel and about 70 countries have offered assistance.

But the increased radiation caused the US Navy to temporarily pull an aircraft carrier group from the coast while major international relief agencies have been kept out of the radiation hot zones.

“These latest developments will obviously make the humanitarian effort more difficult,” said Francis Markus, a spokesperson for the International Federation of Red Cross.

The Japanese Red Cross has deployed about 90 medical teams who are trying to provide the basics in care for 430 000 in remote towns spread along the coast.

Battered, bruised and hungry
“It is the elderly who have been hit the hardest,” said Patrick Fuller of the International Federation of Red Cross, in a memo written from Ishinomaki, one of several coastal cities brutalised by the swirling wall of waves.

“The tsunami engulfed half the town and many lie shivering uncontrollably under blankets. They are suffering from hypothermia, having been stranded in their homes without water or electricity.”

Hundreds of foreign rescue workers are assisting quake and tsunami victims but the United Nations does not plan to mount a bigger relief operation unless requested, UN aid officials said on Monday.

All along the ravaged north-eastern coast, there were similar scenes of desperation and destruction. The wall of water transported homes inland, swept ships into fields, upended cars and left trains scattered across fields like toys.

Toshiyuki Suzuki (61) has a heart pacemaker and takes seven kinds of medicine a day. He lost all of them when the waves swept away his home, along with his 91-year-old father and 25-year-old son.

He cannot go to hospitals because there is no gasoline at local fuel stations. “I am having problems with walking and with my heartbeat. I absolutely need medicine.”

Survivors pulled from underneath rubble
Emergency workers have so far rescued 15 000 people and about 550 000 had been evacuated by Monday to about 2 600 shelters in six prefectures, Kyodo said.

Rescuers in Japan on Tuesday pulled two survivors, a woman and a man, from underneath the rubble four days after the powerful earthquake and devastating tsunami, public broadcaster NHK reported.

A 70-year-old woman was found alive in the quake-hit town of Otsuchi in Iwate prefecture, NHK said. She was suffering from hypothermia but was not in a life-threatening condition, it said, adding that she had been hospitalised.

A man, whose age was not given, was rescued in the town of Ishimaki in hard-hit Miyagi prefecture, the network said.

Snow or rain is expected on Wednesday in some regions, adding urgency to relief efforts. — Reuters, AFP