Japan Struggles With Post-Quake Crises

Japan grapples with the mounting humanitarian crisis that has followed from the massive earthquake and tsumani. Thousands are dead and displaced in the northeastern part of the country.

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz, coming to you this weekend from our studios at NPR West in Southern California.

(Soundbite of helicopters)

RAZ: The sound of U.S. Navy helicopters loading up with humanitarian relief supplies for northern Japan. At this hour, the scope and scale of the disaster is still unfolding. And while estimates of the dead and missing continue to climb, the government is trying to avert another catastrophe at some of its nuclear reactors.

Earlier, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan compared the situation to the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a moment, we'll have an update on the status of those nuclear reactors, and later, what the crisis could mean for the global economy.

But first to reporter Doualy Xaykaothao in Koriyama City in northern Japan.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: If it's not the strong aftershocks that scare Fukushima residents or the nightly warnings of more tsunamis, then it's the potential radiation exposure from not one but a growing number of nearby damaged nuclear facilities.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan is aware of the challenge ahead.

Prime Minister NAOTO KAN (Japan): (Through translator) In the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan.

XAYKAOTHAO: In Koriyama City, a safe distance from the damaged nuclear facilities, troubled winds continue to blow.

This man, who asked us not to identify him, brought his family to a makeshift health center. Ragged from lack of sleep and confusion about emergency shelter locations, he said he's not sure what's going on, but he was asked to evacuate from his home last night, along with 170,000 others.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) So he thinks, well, if they're telling us - he doesn't really know, but if they're saying you can't go to this places, well, doesn't that mean that there's a problem?

XAYKAOTHAO: No, insists Japan, and nuclear experts from the U.N. and the World Health Organization seem to agree the current radiation levels detected in humans is low and therefore not dangerous.

Still, as a precaution, the government asked residents living near two Fukushima power plants to evacuate. Hundreds end up at a shelter in Miharu, where volunteers offer rice balls and hot drinks. Eighty-four-year-old Mitsuko Owada has nothing better to do but watch television.

Ms. MITSUKO OWADA: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: Her son brought her here along with five other relatives. She's got a bad back, so all she can do is lie on the cold, hard floors.

Masatomo Watanabe helped coordinate some of the evacuations from areas such as Tomioka, Okuma and Futaba. An interpreter asks him if operations are running smoothly.

Mr. MASATOMO WATANABE: (Through translator) There were people that were panicking. Yeah.

XAYKAOTHAO: There's less of that now. But with expected blackouts across Japan because of a shortage of electricity and more predictions of earthquakes, even one estimated at a magnitude seven, there's a lot to remain concerned about.

Those of us reporting on this disaster, too, have to think about an evacuation plan. Even as I write, the hotel room I'm in has swayed back and forth at least three times just tonight. There's no hot water here, pockets of places have no electricity, and the city itself is broken on so many levels that it can be eerie walking around town.

And as food becomes more scarce and water harder to find, people are just taking off in their cars.

Stopping to grab snacks at one of the few 7-Eleven stores still open, this office worker, who also didn't want to be identified, said he left his home near one of the damaged nuclear reactors and headed toward Tokyo. The government must be transparent, he said.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) He's saying that they should deliver more and truthful information. He understands they may want to avoid panic, but it's important to know what's really going on.

XAYKAOTHAO: He said people are tired. Many just want to be back in the comfort of their own homes.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Koriyama City.

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