Japan Struggles To Cope With Disaster's Magnitude

Authorities in Japan says the death toll could pass 10,000 in one northeastern state alone, following last week's earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese government is struggling to cope as it faces a growing nuclear crisis as well.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In a moment, we'll hear from Steve Inskeep, who's reporting this week from Cairo.

WERTHEIMER: But first, we want to bring you up to date on the tragedy in Japan. Workers there have the horrific task of digging bodies from the debris left by Friday's massive tsunami. Officials now estimate more than 10,000 people died in the disaster after a huge, offshore earthquake sent a wall of water slamming into the northern coast of Japan.

MONTAGNE: Millions of survivors have spent a third night without water, food or heating, and the country faces a growing nuclear crisis as well.

NPR's Rob Gifford has been visiting survivors around the coastal city of Sendai.

ROB GIFFORD: When the huge earthquake struck at precisely 2:46 on Friday afternoon, Yumi Takano was in her home, about a mile from the sea. The house stood firm in the quake, but Mrs. Takano knew immediately what she had to do.

Ms. YUMI TAKANO: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: I ran, she says. I grabbed my neighbor and ran. We jumped into the car, and we were out of there within 15 minutes.

Anyone who waited longer was swept away as 26 minutes after the earthquake, a wall of water moving faster than a racehorse did what no earthquake could, and demolished the whole suburb of Arahama.

Ms. MIYUKI ARIMATSU: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: We've lost everything. The house, the car, everything, says Miyuki Arimatsu. The neighbor, Mrs. Takano, grabbed(ph), but at least they got out alive.

Mr. MAKATO ITO: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: Sixty-four-year-old Makato Ito has lost seven members of his extended family. He wanders in a daze around the evacuation centers of Sendai, looking for them. Thousands of bodies have already been found at towns up and down the coast.

(Soundbite of fire)

GIFFORD: Here, at least there is a crackling fire, and dry noodles to feed the 3,000 people huddling inside. The center is staffed by volunteers. Even the government of well-organized, wealthy Japan is struggling to cope with the magnitude of the disaster. A million and a half homes now have no water. Nearly 2 million homes have no electricity, and there have been 150 aftershocks since the earthquake on Friday.

Well, we were just driving to the shore there, and a guy has just ridden past us on his bike, waving his arms. And our driver here is saying that he's shouting: tsunami, tsunami, warning. And so we're actually now turning right around, right now. We'll go back. Yes? Go back. OK. We're going right back up to the higher ground. Things are very jittery here.

In the end, it was a false alarm - or at least, it turned out the guy on the bicycle had probably heard, or heard about, the explosion at the nuclear power plant along the coast, where the containment building of a second nuclear reactor had exploded just as the first one had on Saturday.

Japan's chief cabinet secretary said the reactor's inner containment vessel, holding the nuclear fuel rods, was intact. But it gives an idea of just how jittery things are here that news of an explosion at a nuclear reactor is greeted with relief. At least it wasn't another tsunami.

When we finally reach nearer the sea, it's an apocalyptic scene: cars, boats, trees, crushed houses all mashed together in a mass of mangled debris.

Mr. MAKATO KOBIASHI(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: Makato Kobiashi points out towards the place where his wife ran to get their granddaughter from school, grabbing the child and wading waist-deep in water to get to the second floor and then the roof. He stands and sighs, his gaze disappearing into the middle distance, as he repeats one of the few English words he knows.

Mr. KOBIASHI: Lucky.

GIFFORD: Lucky.

Mr. KOBIASHI: Mmm. We're lucky.

(Soundbite of crows)

GIFFORD: The only sounds here now are the crows picking at who knows what amid the debris, as an eerie silence descends on a shattered town.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Sendai, northeastern Japan.

MONTAGNE: And MORNING EDITION will be bringing you the latest on the disaster in Japan throughout the morning.

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