Rescuers are recovering bodies and searching for the missing along Japan’s northeastern coastline, as millions of survivors are left without drinking water, electricity and proper food in the wake of the devastating tsunami.
The death toll in the tsunami and the earthquake which triggered it will likely exceed 10,000 in Miyagi prefecture alone, the local police chief said on Sunday.
Naoto Takeuchi was quoted as saying he had “no doubt” the toll will rise that high in Miyagi, one of the three prefectures hardest hit in Friday’s disaster.
In one astonishing rescue, a military helicopter on Sunday picked up a 60-year-old man floating off the coast of Fukushima on the roof of his house after being swept 15km out to sea by the tsunami, the defence ministry said.
“I ran away after learning that the tsunami was coming,” Hiromitsu Shinkawa told rescuers according to Jiji Press. “But I turned back to pick up something at home, when I was washed away. I was rescued while I was hanging to the roof from my house.”
Dislodged shipping containers piled up along the coastline and swathes of mangled wreckage consumed what used to be rice fields.
An elderly woman wrapped in a blanket tearfully recalled how she and her husband evacuated from Kesennuma town, north of Miyagi prefecture, where the massive tsunami swept through a fishing port.
“I was trying to escape with my husband, but water forced us to run up to the second story of a house of people we don’t even know at all,” she told NHK television.
“Water still came up to the second floor, and before our eyes, the house’s owner and his daughter were flushed away. We couldn’t do anything. Nothing.”
The quake, measured to magnitude 9.0 by the Japanese Meteorological Agency, was the strongest quake ever recorded in the country. It has been followed by more than 150 powerful aftershocks.
At least 1.4 million households have gone without water since the quake struck and millions of households are without electricity. Temperatures were to dip near freezing overnight.
Large areas of the countryside remained surrounded by water and unreachable. Many fuel stations were closed and people were running out of petrol for their vehicles.
Public broadcaster NHK said around 310,000 people have been evacuated to emergency shelters, many of them without power.
In Iwaki town, residents were leaving due to concerns over dwindling food and fuel supplies. The town had no electricity and all stores were closed.
As Sendai city endured a pitch-black night amid a power blackout, Sendai Teishin Hospital spokesman Masayoshi Yamamoto told AFP the building was able to keep its lights on using its own power generators, drawing in survivors.
Around 50 people arrived looking to shelter from the cold night air in the lobby of the downtown Sendai city hospital, he said.
“Many of them are from outside Miyagi prefecture, who had visited some patients here or came in search of essential medicines,” he said.
But with water supplies cut, Yamamoto said hospital officials were worried about how long its tank-based supply would last. The hospital may also run out of food for its patients by Monday.
“We have asked other hospitals to provide food for us, but transportation itself seems difficult,” he said.
In Sendai, 24-year-old Ayumi Osuga dug through the destroyed remnants of her home.
She had been playing origami, the Japanese art of folding paper into figures, with her three children when the quake stuck. She recalled her husband’s shouted warning from outside: “Get out of there now!”
She gathered her children and fled in her car to higher ground with her husband. They spent the night huddled in a hilltop home belonging to her husband’s family about 20km away.
“My family, my children. We are lucky to be alive,” she told The Associated Press. “I have come to realise what is important in life’.