Japan's Northeast Coast, Before and After The Quake

Guests

Dr. Frank Bia, medical director, AmeriCares
Nell Greenfieldboyce, science desk reporter, NPR
Nobuo Fukuda, Japan scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center
Brian Kross, Urban Search and Rescue Team, Los Angeles County Fire Dept.
Marie Mutsuki Mockett
, author, Picking Bones From Ash

More than half the population of the Japanese town Minami Sanriku remains missing after the massive quake and tsunami, and many other villages face the same fate. Experts provide a snapshot of the region before and after the quake, aid workers describe relief efforts currently underway and NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce shares an update on Fukushima's nuclear plant.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In just a few hours, the sun will rise in Japan, six days into catastrophe. Radiation levels continue to fluctuate at the nuclear power complex at Fukushima. Workers struggling to control the damaged reactors there and the spent fuel were withdrawn earlier today.

Throughout the most heavily damaged areas along the coast north and east of Tokyo, researchers uncovered more and more bodies, and thousands remained missing.

Nearly half a million people have squeezed into makeshift evacuation centers, where they struggle with a lack of food, water and heat. And temperatures there hover around the freezing point. Amid fears of radiation exposure, some aid groups are pulling their workers out.

This hour, we want to hear from our Japanese-American listeners. What are you hearing from friends and family? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

An update on the nuclear plant in just a few minutes, but we begin with Dr. Frank Bia. He's medical director with AmeriCares, an organization that's helping with rescue efforts there in Japan, and joins us on the line from Stamford, Connecticut. Nice to have you with us today.

Dr. FRANK BIA (Medical Director, AmeriCares): Nice to be with you.

CONAN: And what reports are you getting from your people?

Dr. BIA: Well, the reports that we're getting are comparisons to previous disasters that we've dealt with. Our organization delivers medicines and medical supplies, first to first responders and then on a long-term basis.

Things are far more organized than they might have been in previous disaster situations. The situation is orderly, but people are beginning to run out of the basics.

CONAN: Such as things like insulin?

Dr. BIA: That will be one of the medications that people will run out of quite quickly. But even before we deal with medications, we have issues just like simple hygiene products, for example - the food, water issues.

And our first response will be to get those in immediately, and that will be followed by the types of chronic medications that would be appropriate for the Japanese population, because it's skewed in one direction. As you know, it's an older population.

CONAN: So that would mean more people with things like diabetes and heart conditions.

Dr. BIA: Right. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory disease -they will be very high on the list, and they will require a long-term commitment to supplying those needs.

CONAN: And that would also suggest - we know there are a lot of fires burning. There's a lot of stuff in the air.

Dr. BIA: Right, all that material in the air, anyone who has underlying respiratory disease, whether it's a child with asthma or an adult with what we call chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or emphysema, may have been a result of occupational exposures or smoking, those people are going to see an exacerbation of their disease. It's going to be worse because of those fires.

CONAN: And those are pre-existing conditions, if you will forgive the phrase. But there's also going to be an awful lot of people with injuries they suffered during the event itself.

Dr. BIA: That's right. The tsunami itself has a whole series of injuries that are associated with the water itself, both the destruction from the water, the crush injuries that occur, and in addition the water, that specific kind of water and the bacteria that live in it, infecting wounds on people who have been hurt by the debris.

CONAN: So the possibilities of infection and ultimately sepsis are very real.

Dr. BIA: Oh, they're very real. They're very real. And they include organisms that you don't deal with ordinarily on a daily basis. My field, my background is in infectious disease, and we always have to think about the organisms or the bacteria that live in saltwater, and they can be highly pathogenic, meaning they can cause serious disease, and that can result in sepsis if they're not treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics fairly quickly.

CONAN: You were saying your people in the field were comparing this with other crises. Yes, Japan a wealthier country than most of the time. Obviously there was New Zealand as well, another wealthy country. But how - what are their comparisons? What are they telling you?

Dr. BIA: Well, the people who are on the ground have experience in these kinds of disasters, and I guess the most recent one to compare it to would be Haiti.

And the situation in Japan, as compared to what was happening in Haiti, of course the death rate is much lower, possibly due to both the event and then some of the advance warning that went along with it, the nature of Japanese society, the fact that, yes, it is a country that is a developed country.

But most importantly, the Japanese are very well-prepared as a society for dealing with disasters. Disaster preparedness is very much a part of what happens in Japan.

CONAN: And if there was one thing you could get there urgently, what would it be?

Dr. BIA: I think right now the one thing we would want to get there urgently are the basics. And we can provide some of those, and some of them will have to be provided immediately by what is available in Japan.

What I can see over the next week or two is that they're going to be running out of the medications we just discussed. These will be things like oxygen, chronic care medications, even things like the materials that are needed to treat chronic kidney disease, like dialysis equipment. These are the kinds of things we'd want to get in real soon.

CONAN: Dr. Bia, thanks very much for your time, and we wish you the best of luck.

Dr. BIA: Thanks very much, Neal.

CONAN: Dr. Frank Bia, medical director at AmeriCares. He joined us from his office in Stamford, Connecticut.

NPR science desk reporter Nell Greenfieldboyce joins us here in Studio 3A to talk about the latest information on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. And Nell, nice of you to be with us.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

CONAN: And what are we hearing? We heard of a big radiation spike earlier today, workers withdrawn from the plant.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right. Well, there have been a few developments. There was an attempt to use helicopters over the reactors to try to pour water to cool things down. But apparently those helicopters had to withdraw because of concerns about high radiation levels. Apparently there's some sort of new plan to bring, you know, trucks or ground equipment in to pump water.

Also, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo is recommending that American citizens within 50 miles of the plant evacuate the area or take shelter indoors if safe evacuation isn't practical. And they said that's consistent with guidelines that would be in place if that kind of event was happening in the United States.

CONAN: We've heard various other nations advising their nationals to, well, either evacuate the area or even consider leaving Tokyo.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's right. That's right. And consider what the Japanese government has recommended. I mean, they have evacuated their citizens within 12 miles of the plant and then recommended sheltering in place within 18 miles. So it's a different a different kind of situation.

CONAN: Now, around the plant itself, according to Gregory Jaczko, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in testimony to Congress today, he said: We believe there are high levels of radiation around the plant, levels high enough to cause radiation disease.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, levels at the plant are the real concern. Last night, after white smoke or steam was seen on Japanese television billowing from reactor number three, a government spokesperson came out and talked to the media.

And he said that there had been fluctuating radiation levels but that there had been a spike that required them to at least temporarily remove workers from the scene.

So the radiation levels and workers' ability to get close to reactor buildings is a concern. And actually, the Japanese government increased the legal limit that workers can be exposed to. They basically doubled that limit.

CONAN: So in other words, if in the past you were only permitted to be exposed to X percent, X millirads, then they've doubled that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yes.

CONAN: Now, are we getting a lot of information? The past week it's been very difficult to find out exactly what's been going on.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, it's true, some things are murky, like the exact number of workers in the plant at any one time. Your information about -there was a fire at reactor number four, and then later there was another fire, and it wasn't clear. Was that the first fire that hadn't been extinguished, or was it a new fire? The exact nature and cause of the fire?

Some of this stuff is murky, and part of that is because the people who really know may be working the situation. Also, it may be that people just don't have the information to provide.

CONAN: And again, we may not know the answer to this question, but if the radiation levels are high enough to cause real fears of exposure to the workers, it's going to be very difficult for them to try to contain this situation.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, I mean, people are obviously working as hard as they can. At a press briefing today at the International Atomic Energy Agency, officials were asked repeatedly, you know: Is this out of control? And those officials were not willing to say that. They said people were working the situation hard.

The head of the agency said he was planning to go to Japan and that the situation was very serious.

CONAN: Yesterday we were talking about perhaps partial meltdowns at a couple of these reactors. Any more information on that?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: No. I mean, workers are still trying - the overall need is to get water into these reactors, reactors one, two and three. And then there are also concerns about the storage pools, pools of water that are used to store spent fuel or fuel rods at a couple of the other reactors. So I mean, all efforts are going to try to keep all of those things cool.

CONAN: And that one of the containment vessels may have cracked. Any more information about that?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, well, that was reactor number two. There was an explosion there. And then late last night the same government spokesperson said that a similar event may have happened at reactor number three, so some sort of damage to the containment vessel. But there haven't been more details about whether there has been damage and how bad it might be.

CONAN: Is - given the physics of this, will these things eventually cool down on their own, or will they get hotter and hotter?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, I think that, you know, the main issue is getting the water in. And you know, people have said that, you know, if we can keep pumping the water in, you know, things will cool down.

And part of pumping the water is getting electricity to the site. So obviously the Tokyo Power Company is trying to maintain electricity at the site. So I think that we're just going to have to see how things unfold over the next few days.

CONAN: What questions - if you could pose questions to a spokesman from the power company there in Japan and get answers, what would they be?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I would like to know, you know, what assistance they would like other places to provide. I mean, you know, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said that he was going there, but I'm wondering what kind of international assistance could be offered. Because it's hard for people who are not on the scene to look at this, and they want to help, and it's not clear what help can be given.

CONAN: We had heard that the United States might be asked to bring in, well, generators to provide the electricity needed to power those pumps, to pour the water on the fuel.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, there were questions last night to the government spokesperson about whether the American military was going to be asked to help. And he seemed to imply that that might be the case, but there have been no details about that.

CONAN: In the meantime, U.S. ships have been moved further way, or at least further away from the downwind area.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yes.

CONAN: And do we have any information on the degree of radiation exposure to U.S. troops?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: There was one report earlier on that some service personnel on the USS Ronald Reagan may have gotten a very small exposure that they could just sort of wash off with soap and water. But I haven't heard anything since then.

CONAN: Nell Greenfieldboyce, thank you very much for bringing us up to date on the situation as best we know it. And there's a lot of questions we don't know the answers to. But please stay tuned to NPR for what we do know. Thanks very much for your time.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

CONAN: Nell Greenfieldboyce, an NPR science desk reporter. She joined us here, with us in Studio 3A.

We're talking about the humanitarian situation in Japan for the remainder of this hour. When we come back, more on how the region affected by the earthquake and tsunami looked like before the disaster and what the region's people can hope to return to.

We'd also like to hear from Japanese-Americans in our audience. What are you hearing from your friends and family back home? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. (Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

The scenes from the Japanese town of Minami Sanriku are startling. More than half the residents of the fishing village are missing and feared dead after the town was hammered by a tsunami 30 feet high.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced Japanese people are camping out at rescue centers, unsure of what waits for them at home.

If you have questions about this region, what life was like there before the disaster or what residents will return to, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We also want to hear from Japanese-American listeners. If you've heard from friends and family back home, what have they shared with you about the last six days? Again, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org.

Nobuo Fukuda joins us now here in Studio 3A. He's a Japan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and nice to have you with us on the program today.

Mr. NOBUO FUKUDA (Woodrow Wilson Center): It's nice to be with you.

CONAN: And we've heard so much about the devastation in the northeastern coast of Japan since the earthquake. What were some of these places like on Thursday, before the earthquake?

Mr. FUKUDA: Well, we call the region Kohoku(ph). It literally means northeast of Japan. It's made up of six prefectures, and the population around nearly 10 million. That accounts for around maybe eight percent of the whole population of the nation.

And they - I'm from outside that region. So my knowledge and experience about the region is limited.

CONAN: Is limited, but we're seeing snow in the pictures...

Mr. FUKUDA: Yes. Probably the impression, I mean, the outsiders have towards the region is first of all snow. And they are very unique weather, certainly in winter. They have a lot of snow, usually as high as a few dozen inches. And the temperature gets real low.

So weather is, I would say, harsh, I mean, you know, compared to other regions that are located to west of that region.

CONAN: What do the people there do for a living? Is this fishing villages?

Mr. FUKUDA: Well, the hardest-hit area, I mean by the tsunami and the earthquake this time, were, you know, were known for, you know, hosting, you know, many big, you know, fishing bases, I mean, of the nation.

So traditionally fishery and agriculture is very strong, I mean in the regions, in industry. But these days I think they have successfully invited more industries like autos or electronics, I mean to the region. And I think, you know, manufacturing and service industries do account for the biggest part of the regional economy.

And the regional economy of the six prefectures, I mean as a whole, would account for probably around eight percent of the gross domestic product of Japan.

CONAN: We've heard - we of course know that Japan is demographically an older nation. Is this one of those areas of the county where younger people tend to leave this area to go to places like Tokyo?

Mr. FUKUDA: I would say it is. I mean, because of the lack of the strong industrial basis. And also because of the severe winter. I mean, people have had a tendency to go to Tokyo for employment, certainly in winter, I mean when they couldn't engage in agriculture.

I mean, most of, you know, adult men, I mean I wouldn't say most, but you know, many would go to Tokyo for temporary employment like, you know, contractions.

CONAN: You mentioned farming, agriculture. Is that another big industry in the area?

Mr. FUKUDA: Yes, it is, but you know, actually it's, you know, something they could do, you know, in three seasons out of four. They couldn't do much, I mean in winter. So you know, many of them...

CONAN: A short growing season, in other words.

Mr. FUKUDA: That's right. That's right.

CONAN: Is this mountainous area? Obviously farms, they're flat...

Mr. FUKUDA: Uh-huh. They have long coastal lines also, but it's very mountainous too. And they have a lot of snowy mountains.

CONAN: We have this email from Emmy(ph) in San Francisco: My family is scattered about Japan. I have many friends in Tokyo and a few who are from the most damaged areas in the north.

People in Tokyo are nervous but amazingly are more concerned for the people in the north, sending supply packages to people in the more impacted areas.

Others have asked me to send them potassium iodine, as they do not trust the Japanese government to be transparent about the radiation risks and fear they'll be warned too late to prevent damage due to exposure.

I'm trying to get my mother to leave, but she can't go without my grandmother, who is elderly and unable or unwilling to evacuate. I myself was actually in Hawaii when the earthquake hit, experienced the relatively small tsunami there, and had to evacuate to higher ground while waiting for hours to hear from my family in Japan.

Would you expect that reaction from elderly people, to say wait a minute, we don't want to leave, we want to stay near our homes?

Mr. FUKUDA: I think it's actually very difficult for them to leave home, I mean, since they are you know, they means of transportation, you know, if they don't have relatives to rely on in other parts of the region, I mean, you know, country.

I mean, I think that would(ph) probably work as kind of constraints psychologically, you know, in their mind.

CONAN: If the population there is elderly, there will be some percentage who will remember the Second World War, and others, many others, who will remember the kind of privations Japan suffered after the war, in the 19 - into the 19 - well into the 1950s. They will be resilient people, but this will be a terrible memory.

Mr. FUKUDA: Yes. Well, as some journalist onsite reported, I mean, the scenes, I mean immediately after the tsunami hit, you know, reminded them of the scenes, I mean of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, immediately after getting bombed, you know, by atomic bombs.

I mean like, you know, wooden structured houses were all gone, and what remained were just the concrete structured four or five-story buildings, like city halls, a school or something.

So they had experience of the, you know, bad devastations, I mean, like there before. And the people in the region are well-known for their, you know, resilience and their patience. Probably the severe winter weather might have contributed to their characters.

I mean, so they're pretty much - I mean, you know, I mean will stand up against this disaster.

CONAN: We're talking with Nobuo Fukuda, who is a Japan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, here with us in Studio 3A. We want to hear from those of our listeners, Japanese-Americans who - well, everybody wants to know more about this region, but Japanese-Americans in particular -to tell us what they've been hearing from their friends and families in the areas affected by the earthquake and the tsunami.

800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stan is calling from Detroit.

STAN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Stan, you're on the air.

STAN: Yes, hello, Neal. I just arrived from Tokyo. Actually, I'm working in the city (unintelligible), which is about 100 miles north of Tokyo. And I work for Ford Motor Company, and I was in one of their plants, Ohiharo(ph) plant, when the earthquake happened.

And I've been in some earthquakes before. This was - it almost seemed like it was an hour long. It shook so bad that actually people could not even run outside. The beams were falling down from the roof, and it was horrible.

Now, just before I left, basically they ran out of gas. There's no gas. There's miles and miles of cars. People just parked them on the streets and waiting for some kind of gas to come eventually.

Food is almost gone. I went in a store yesterday to buy something and literally there was only maybe 20 percent of articles in there that I've seen before. Electricity is on and off. At least six hours a day there is no electricity and water. It's horrible.

CONAN: And the city that you were in, that's a pretty good piece away from where the earthquake hit.

STAN: It's 80 miles south of epicenter, 80 miles south.

CONAN: So everybody that you know, were they okay?

STAN: Yeah, they're all okay. There was some - quite a few homes lost, roofs and, you know, actually one home actually collapsed. I've seen that, and I took some pictures.

But it's basic necessity - you know, it's like food, gas, that's all gone. Actually, I had to go to a totally different city just to get a bus because during a shutdown, an electricity shutdown, there are no trains. Buses are not going to Tokyo. I arrived Tokyo Airport, Narita, actually 6:00 a.m. and my flight was at 2:00, and the airport is packed with people - packed.

CONAN: Trying to get out.

STAN: Yes, trying to get out. It's horrible. I have a lot of friends in Ota - that's Ota, Gunma - and I feel for these people that they're going to suffer.

CONAN: Well, Stan, thanks very much for sharing your story with us.

STAN: Okay. Thank you, man.

CONAN: Nobuo Fukuda, would you expect that the people from this area -they've left the coast. The cities have been destroyed. The villages are shattered and gone. Will they want to go back to those villages and rebuild?

Mr. FUKUDA: Probably, they do. I mean, I think, you know, they are pretty much determined to rebuild what they lost. I mean, even if it takes years, I think, the situation's, you know, pretty bleak. But, you know, as I told you, I mean, you know, thinking of, you know, their patience and resilience, I think they would to do it, definitely.

CONAN: And you've been - you grew up in Tokyo, and you've felt some earthquakes, too, I suspect...

Mr. FUKUDA: Um-hmm.

CONAN: ...and, of course, there was the terrible earthquake just a few years ago in Kobe where, well, reconstruction proceeded to pace. So you would expect that these places will be rebuilt, but they can never be the same.

Mr. FUKUDA: Well, I would say, you know, Kobe is, kind of a, you know, successful case of a, you know, rebuilding itself, actually, on their own. Kobe is one of the most wealthy, I mean, regions in the nation. The - you know, compared to the region, I mean, northeast is, you know, relatively less wealthy. I mean, actually, it's still one of the least wealthy, you know, regions in the nation.

You know, that probably explains why, you know, they are hosting nuclear reactors. I mean, which are actually unwanted and dangerous. You know, they invited, actually, you know, nuclear power plants to get stationed, you know, in this soil in 1960s when, you know, the economy was a - kind of, a stagnant and the - in return, they have the, you know, lucrative subsidies granted by the government.

CONAN: And the people got some jobs as well.

Mr. FUKUDA: That's right.

CONAN: It's not only constructing them but working there.

Mr. FUKUDA: And they produced electricity and send them all the way to Tokyo. And it is (unintelligible).

CONAN: And we're talking about the region - the northeast of Japan, which suffered terribly, of course, last Friday during the earthquake and tsunami. And now, there are fears of radiation as well. Our guest is Nobuo Fukuda, a Japan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to Brian. And Brian's with us from Jackson Hole in Wyoming.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking the call.

NEAL: Sure.

BRIAN: My youngest son, Todd, 24, is - been teaching the last two years in Yamagata Prefecture, which is due west over the ridge and on the west slope of the mountains facing the Sea of Japan from Sendai, the city that was so horribly devastated by the tsunami. He was in class when the initial shaking took place. Fortunately, it's a new building, very well seismically reinforced so it was able to weather that.

But now the situation, of course - they're fairly well cut off. And as the gentleman caller, Stan, mentioned before, gasoline's running out. Food supply is running out. The embassy has issued a warning to get people away from there, Americans out, at least, and they're suggesting he goes down to Niigata City, which is down the coast on the west side, and then catch a train or bus into Tokyo.

I'm just very much concerned. I think that as a practical matter, the prevailing winds and being on the west slope and being at a higher elevation above the Fukushima Daiichi site provides him a little bit of protection, but it's still very frightening.

CONAN: You must be following the news very carefully.

BRIAN: Well, I'm trying to as best I can. I became aware of the earthquake, you know, as it was happening, with the crawler across the TV set. And it was the full 30 hours, 3:00 in the morning Saturday, our time locally, before I was able to get any kind of contact with him and that was just a brief email thing, that he was okay and that I'd get another progress report. And he was doing that from a friend's house where he got into - that had power - because the power in his place was out and has been going in and out, back and forth ever since.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much. And we wish your son the best of luck.

BRIAN: Well, thank you. And our thoughts and prayers go out to every one there in similar situations.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks. And Nobuo Fukuda, before we let you go, you have family back home, I'm sure. Is everybody okay?

Mr. FUKUDA: Yes. Thank you. Everybody is okay. But, you know, actually some of them were stranded, kind of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Stranded?

Mr. FUKUDA: Yes. Actually, my brother was a - you know, he happened to be very near the worst hit area. I mean, actually, he was in, you know, mountain, actually, atop of the high mountain.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FUKUDA: So he...

CONAN: Is he a climber, a skier?

Mr. FUKUDA: Well, he's a skier.

CONAN: Skier?

Mr. FUKUDA: Uh-huh. So he was not really involved in the tsunamis, but, you know, he had a hard time in finding means to go back to Tokyo. So, you know, he, well, he had to stay, apparently, in devastated area for a few days. And the - but, actually, you know, it's nothing compared to -in the village victims who are there (unintelligible) the tsunamis.

You know, everybody is more or less was affected by the earthquake in, you know, in eastern Japan. So, you know, his case is not really an exception.

CONAN: Nobuo Fukuda, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it and we hope everything remains okay with everybody in your family and throughout Japan.

Mr. FUKUDA: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Nobuo Fukuda is a Japan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. And he was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.

When we come back, we'll talk about search and rescue operations underway in northeastern Japan. And we'll also speak with Marie Mutsuki Mockett, who's relatives have stayed at the temple in the Fukushima Prefecture that they care for. More on that in a moment.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Wednesday marks six days of search and rescue operations in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami on Friday. We're hoping to hear from Japanese- American listeners in our audience today. If you've reached your friends and family in that region, what did they tell you? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Urban search and rescue teams from Fairfax County in Virginia and Los Angeles County are on the ground in Japan to assist. Brian Kross is a captain in the Los Angeles County Fire Department and joins us now on the phone from L.A. Thanks very much for taking the time.

Mr. BRIAN KROSS (Captain, Los Angeles County Fire Department): No problem, Neal.

CONAN: I know you're in Los Angeles. What are you hearing from your rescue teams in Japan? What are they finding?

Mr. KROSS: Yes, sir. They're, you know, currently involved in search and rescue operations in the central portion there of the city of Ofunato port area. And they're working in coordination with the U.K., China and also the national Japanese USR teams. And they're just working a shift during the daylight hours just for the safety of the team, and then they're bedding down at nighttimes. As far as right now, they're just continuing to do primary searches and reconnaissance missions, in a search and rescue operations within that city.

CONAN: So these areas are - they're given a grid and told to search in there?

Mr. KROSS: Correct. Correct, yeah. They're given a grid within those cities, and they've been given again with USA 1, which is Fairfax, Virginia and also USA 2, which is our California Task Force 2 team, they've been given areas to grid search, and they're currently in those operations.

CONAN: And what are they finding?

Mr. KROSS: They're not finding a lot, actually. A lot of obviously devastating damage to the area. But as far as coming across any recoveries or anything like that, they have not in these operational periods so far.

CONAN: And what do they use to search?

Mr. KROSS: We do use listening devices - Delsars, as they're called. And also a big part of the search is also our K-9 component in the teams.

CONAN: It's very cold there. We see snow on pictures from the television. How does that affect things?

Mr. KROSS: It is cold, and they woke up yesterday morning to some snow on the ground. And that does affect operations just a little bit. But with the professionalism, obviously, of the organization and the great training these guys have, that has no impact on our ability to do our job.

CONAN: These people have seen a lot in their careers. I'm sure they compare this to other situations they've been in before. What kind of comparisons are you hearing?

Mr. KROSS: A lot of the comparisons initially were - it was kind of a combination of what they were seeing between Katrina and also some of the devastation seen in Haiti when we were there. But each one of these deployments have their own unique challenges and things, and you never know what you're going to see until you get there.

CONAN: How much longer is it useful for these operations to continue?

Mr. KROSS: That's really unknown at this point. They just continue to give us these operations to conduct, and we'll do that as long as the Japanese government needs us to do so.

CONAN: And are - on the teams, are there paramedics and doctors, as well as people who are expert searchers?

Mr. KROSS: That's correct. We have a medical component attached to each of these teams, with - right now, we've got three doctors and also six paramedics that go out with the team, with just USA 2. And so we do have that medical component. And we also have a search component with search team managers, and also the dogs are attached to that along with a technical search specialist.

CONAN: So, at this point, you get to talk to them, presumably, when they come off shift. We're about - well, you're about, what, nine hours off there in their time.

Mr. KROSS: Yes, that's correct. We usually talk with them a couple of times a day with a conference call, just finding out any needs that arise that they have, may have from us that we can support them with. And just - that's where we get our updates from them, about twice a day.

CONAN: What has struck you? In the things that they've told you, what one thing strikes you?

Mr. KROSS: I think the unique thing about this deployment is the weather. This, as far as their deployment, is the first time we really ever had to deal with real cold temperatures, which they're experiencing right now on a daily basis.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much, and we wish you and your team the best of luck.

Mr. KROSS: Great. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Brian Kross, captain of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, member of the Urban Search and Rescue team, who's in touch with their team, who's conducting operations right now in northeastern Japan.

As fears of radiation exposure spread throughout northeastern Japan, some near the plant are ignoring government warnings to stay inside and are, instead, trying to flee the area. The U.S. ambassador in Tokyo asked American citizens living within 50 miles of the plant to evacuate.

Just 30 miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, there's a Buddhist temple. The keepers of that temple have no intention of leaving. Marie Mutsuki Mockett wrote about her relatives at that temple in The New York Times on Monday, and joins us now from our bureau in New York.

Very nice of you to be here today.

Ms. MARIE MUTSUKI MOCKETT (Author): Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: And why are your relatives staying there?

Ms. MOCKETT: Well, they - when I spoke to my cousin, he said that it's his responsibility to be there as long as anybody is remaining in the town. And he said he's just not able to leave under any circumstances. He said he would only leave if he was the very, very last person in the town. Otherwise, he has to be there to help anybody who might need him.

CONAN: Tell us a little about this town.

Ms. MOCKETT: Well, the town is Iwaki City. And I believe there are some videos and photos posted online, so people can see some of the damage that was done there. The temple itself is located on a hill, so it didn't come in the way of the tsunami. And it's surrounded by rice paddies, and there are a number of farmers and townspeople who own shops, and professional people who have a relationship to this temple, and have for generations. And it's a very traditional place. A lot of foreigners don't really go to the Tohoku coast because it's not really set up for foreigners, I suppose.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MOCKETT: But it's very, very beautiful, and most people who've been there say it's very authentic. And a lot of people I know love Tokyo, myself included. But Tokyo has a lot of very modern and very Western influences. And yet if you go to Tohoku coast and Iwaki City, it's like this. You find just a very, very traditional, warm, generous people with wonderful food and wonderful traditions.

CONAN: In your piece in The Times, you wrote that this region of Japan is where the goddesses and demons of legends seem to be alive, and seafood is sweet.

Ms. MOCKETT: Yeah. It's really true. If were going to go to Japan right now - and I was actually planning on going in a couple of weeks -there's a particular fish that's in season right now called mehikari, which is like - they have, like, sparkly eyes. It's a wonderful, wonderful sweet fish to eat. Of course, with the radiation, I don't know that anybody will be eating that anytime soon. But a lot of fishermen who live there, and the area is also very famous for bonito, for tuna.

CONAN: You described a journey that you take when you go to visit your relatives...

Ms. MOCKETT: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...at that shrine. And you say you switched to a local train to get off at Nakoso. Am I pronouncing that correctly?

CONAN: Nakoso, yes. That's right.

CONAN: And a town famous for inns and hot springs.

Ms. MOCKETT: Yeah.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit about that, if you would.

CONAN: Well, the thing to understand, of course, is because there's a plate there, the whole Eastern Coast is full of hot springs because the water comes - the hot springs come out of the Earth as a result of all the seismic activity. And so, for example, last year, I went to a new hot spring I'd never been to before, and the history of it was that there had been an earthquake in the area, and suddenly there was a new hot spring. But some - many of the hot springs are very old, and many of the inns are very old. And it's just a thing that people do in Japan, no matter what you do for a living.

This particular hot spring, there are a number of them. There's - it's a sort of a saline-type water. And I - when I go, I always stay in a room, a traditional room with a tatami floor and a real futon. But they also have armchairs. And sometimes, single men will go and spend the night in an armchair and then get up in the morning and go have a bath, and then eat something and then go have another bath, drink...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOCKETT: ...and go back to sleep in an armchair. And it's just a -it's an activity - a relaxing activity that everybody enjoys, regardless of their age. A couple of years ago, I took my husband with me. And he went to the hot spring with my grandfather, who would have been 95 at the time, with one of my cousins from the temple, and my husband who probably had only been to a Japanese hot spring twice in his life.

CONAN: You also describe a bit of the city of Sendai, which is the big city in the area we're talking about. And the airports run along the coast of Sendai and tough - a little further inland. But it is home to what you described as the most famous and romantic of summer festivals.

Ms. MOCKETT: Well, I think so. All across Japan, people celebrate something called Tanabata. But Sendai is particularly famous for their Tanabata. And it is a romantic festival in which the stars, Altair and Vega, who represent the weaver and the princess who were separated, of course - because all love stories have to have a separation. They're separated by the Milky Way. But once a year, there's a flock of birds that comes and takes the princess across so that two lovers can reunite.

And so then all across Japan on that night, people dress up and they wear traditional kimono. Actually, they're called yukata. It's like a lightweight summer kimono, and there are fireworks. And people write wishes down on strips of paper, which are hung from pieces of bamboo. And Sendai was particularly famous because it had these huge streamers and, like, almost enormous plastic chandelier-type ornaments that they would hang from the streets.

And people would come from all over Japan to see this, because it was such a spectacle. Festivals in Japan are one of the things that make it so unique and just so much fun. And it's an opportunity - it's sort of like Carnival. It's an opportunity for everyone to let their hair down, and you hear traditional music. And people drink, and they dance. And it's just romantic and beautiful.

And it - I just - it's just inconceivable that - I said to my mom, I said, are they going to be able to do it this year if the town is so devastated, you know? It's something that they specialized in, and would have been probably been preparing for already.

CONAN: Some of the most compelling images are the slide shows you see on some of the newspaper sights before and after.

Ms. MOCKETT: Yeah.

CONAN: And you must be doing that all the time.

Ms. MOCKETT: I do it sometimes. Sometimes, it just feels unreal. I think, like anybody else, I sort of go through periods where I feel like I have to dissociate from what's happened. Other times, I look at it and I just feel so sad. I, you know, I was supposed to be taking this train in a couple of weeks. And, of course, the train is out. And it just doesn't look like anything that I recognize.

It's doesn't seem possible. Of course, it is possible. And people who lived there knew it was possible. But it's just so terrible. I mean, this is an area that I love. And as I said, it's not necessarily an area that people know particularly well, but it's a beautiful and a wonderful place, and it's terrible to think that it's not there, not the way that it was, that it's sort of in my imagination and not in reality.

CONAN: Marie Mutsuki Mockett is the author of "Picking Bones from Ash." She wrote a piece in The New York Times, "Memories, Washed Away."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from Douglas in San Francisco: Thanks for remembering the people in the Tohoku. I lived there in '95, '96, and have finally made contact this morning with friends in Sendai. As your listeners have commented, gasoline and food are in short supply. Some families have moved inland. A friend of mine is hosting relatives who have left Iwaki, near the nuclear power plants. A lot of us, even Americans, speak Japanese and have NHK on the Dish Network. We are glued to NHK.

I wonder, Marie Mutsuki Mockett, are you watching a lot of NHK at the moment?

Ms. MOCKETT: I'm watching some NHK. I guess I sort of feel like I'm trying to get my news from different sources. I managed to speak to my family after that piece I wrote, the piece for The New York Times. And I felt that perhaps they weren't learning the full extent of the damage at the nuclear facilities. And then I felt that maybe I was getting a more accurate picture from other news sources, and so I tried to convey that to them.

But I do also watch NHK. But I also, I think, like a lot of New Yorkers learned that after 9/11, that sometimes you have to step away from the news, and that it doesn't necessarily help to follow every single moment of every day.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Christopher, another caller from San Francisco.

CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

CHRISTOPHER: Okay. Yes, I think Sendai, if I remember correctly, is -every town seems to be famous for one thing, I think some kind of food. And I think if I remember, Sendai was famous for beef tongue. I don't know. Maybe I can be corrected on that.

But I called about - my wife is Japanese, and we talked to her father last night. And he had gone to Tokyo, where her brother is - he's actually in Yokohama. And on his return trip on the shinkansen, on the bullet train, he was - the train was flooded with women with their children that were heading out.

And I - he said he'd never seen anything like it. He said it was actually kind of shocking to him how many women were leaving with their children. So I hadn't heard anything like that on the news, and I, as well, got NHK the day the thing happened.

And sadly - and maybe it was a mistake because my wife has been pinned to the television set and just saddened on a, you know, on a regular -every moment is sad for her as she watches the feed from NHK. And I'm about to pull the plug out, because it's just so saddening to watch.

CONAN: Hmm. Is he right? Is Sendai famous for tongue?

Ms. MOCKETT: You know, I don't know, and I'm thinking that I haven't had it. But that doesn't mean that it's not famous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOCKETT: I think I tend to - when I go to Japan, I tend to want to eat seafood. But that makes me...

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. I think foto ika(ph) is actually would be in season, also. You mentioned something in - I remember going there - we go...

Ms. MOCKETT: Oh, the hotaru ika, the firefly squid? Yes.

CHRISTOPHER: The little squid. And they're only available off the coast there. And I think those are in season, as well. So - and that will probably be disrupted, as well, I'm sure.

Ms. MOCKETT: Yeah.

CONAN: Well, Christopher, thanks very much, and we hope everybody in your wife's family is safe.

CHRISTOPHER: Thank you. Yes, they are.

CONAN: Marie Mutsuki Mockett, you wrote at the end of your piece that you were having difficulty staying in communications with your relatives there at the shrine. Have you been able to get back in touch?

Ms. MOCKETT: Oh, I did have another conversation with them very late Sunday, early Monday, where I tried to be the blunt American and say: I think you need to leave now - and then got a bunch of excuses, you know, the roads are crowded. There's no gasoline.

And then my cousin said, well, you know, I am prepared to die here. And then I said, could you please send your children away? And he said yes, when it becomes critical. And I said I think it's critical now. And so I was very concerned that by the time there was any sort of evacuation order, it would be difficult to leave.

But we had a very emotional conversation around the subject of his choosing to stay no matter what, and why he felt that was important and that he was at peace with it, which was a very sort of awesome and difficult conversation to have. I feel - over the years, I've learned a lot from him, and he's - has a generosity at spirit that is just impressive.

CONAN: We wish him and your other relatives the best of luck. Thank you.

Ms. MOCKETT: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Marie Mutsuki Mockett, the author of "Picking Bones from Ash." She joined us from our bureau in New York.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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