Rescuers In Japan Struggle To Reach Survivors

One day after a massive earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, setting off a tsunami that swamped coastal cities, rescuers are struggling to reach survivors. Host Linda Wetheimer talks to NPR's Rob Gifford in Osaka, Japan, about the scope of the damage and the state of rescue and recovery efforts.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Images from Japan show scenes of devastation: flooded cities and highways, twisted piles of wreckage where homes once stood, cars and trucks strewn haphazardly where the force of the water left them. Hundreds of people were killed; many more are homeless; thousands are without power and water.

NPR's Rob Gifford is in Japan, on his way to the disaster area. He joins us on the line.

Rob, can you give us any idea of the scope of this disaster?

ROB GIFFORD: Well, it's very hard to tell at this stage, Linda, because as you say, all we're seeing are the pictures, a lot of them coming from helicopters flying over the scene. What we do know is about a 150-mile stretch of the northeastern coast of Japan facing out to the Pacific Ocean has been devastated.

In some areas, the tsunami reached up to six miles inland. There's reports of trains vanishing - trains that were running up the east coast - line up the east coast of Japan have just disappeared. The tsunami itself was about 30 feet high.

Two hundred thousand people are said to have fled - of course, anyone who could climb to higher ground up onto higher buildings. But whole villages, whole towns have been completely wiped out by this wave.

WERTHEIMER: What can you tell us about rescue and recovery efforts?

GIFFORD: Well, the Japanese government has mobilized very quickly and sent, in fact, several hundred planes already to airports in the north of the main island, Honshu - the airports that are open, that is. Ships are going up from the south as well by sea to deliver goods, food and water, and blankets.

Military and civilian groups have all been moving into the area to try to help the people whose homes have literally vanished, and there are tens of thousands of those people.

WERTHEIMER: I assume the most urgent needs would be for food and especially, for water. That seems to be something that always goes away in a disaster like this.

GIFFORD: That's exactly right. I think there have been some buildings further inland that were really damaged by the earthquake. But when you actually look at the areas that were hit by the tsunami, just like the pictures you'll remember from the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the places that were hit by the water, many of them are simply wiped out.

So the idea of survivors - there being any survivors - I think it's very, there's a very slim chance of that. And so the focus is very much now on the people who were on higher ground, the people who fled, or whose homes have been knocked over, and getting food and especially, water to them.

Also bear in mind there's no electricity in many of these places, no phone lines, and then, of course, we've got the whole explosion at the nuclear plant on top of that.

WERTHEIMER: So Rob, you are headed for the disaster area. Any notion of when you'll be able to get in?

GIFFORD: We should be there tomorrow, on Sunday. A lot of the roads from the southern cities Osaka and Tokyo were actually closed, and a lot of the airports in the north of Honshu - the island of Honshu - were closed as well. But we're flying in there tomorrow morning, and it's a long drive into the area, and we hope to be able to tell you more from the scene tomorrow.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much. That is NPR's Rob Gifford, reporting from Osaka in Japan. Rob, thank you.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Linda.

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