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Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan Reels As Quake Toll Could Top 10,000 : NPR

Japan Reels As Quake Toll Could Top 10,000 : NPR

The death toll in Japan's earthquake and tsunami could exceed 10,000 in one northeastern state alone, an official said Sunday.

Hundreds of thousands of survivors of the quake were left without drinking water, electricity or proper food, as aftershocks continued.

"This is Japan's most severe crisis since the war ended 65 years ago," Prime Minister Naoto Kan told reporters, adding that Japan's future would be decided by the response to this crisis.

The police chief of Miyagi prefecture, or state, told a gathering of disaster relief officials that his estimate for deaths was more than 10,000, police spokesman Go Sugawara said. Miyagi has a population of 2.3 million and is one of the three prefectures hardest hit in Friday's disaster. Only 379 people have officially been confirmed dead in Miyagi.

According to officials, at least 1,200 people were killed and 739 were missing in the disasters.

Economic Impact

The Bank of Japan, the country's central bank,said it is injecting a record 15 trillion yen ($183.8 billion) into money markets to stabilize the financial system after a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The figure was more than double the 7 trillion yen the bank had announced earlier in the day. The emergency move came as the Tokyo stock market plunged nearly 6 percent, and worries grew about the economic impact of Friday's earthquake and tsunami.

Central bankers are currently gathered for a one-day policy board meeting.

By flooding the banking system with cash, the Bank of Japan hopes banks will continue lending money and meet the likely surge in demand for post-earthquake funds. Immediately after the earthquake, the central bank pledged to "do its utmost," including providing liquidity. Preliminary estimates put repair costs from the earthquake and tsunami in the tens of billions of dollars, a huge blow for an economy that lost its place as the world's No. 2 to China last year, and was already in a fragile state.

Evacuation Efforts

In Koriyama City, a safe distance from the damaged nuclear facilities, one man, who asked not to be identified, brought his family to a makeshift health center. Ragged from lack of sleep and confusion about emergency shelter locations, he said he was asked to evacuate from his home Saturday night along with 170,000 others.

"If they are saying you can't go to this place, well doesn't that mean there is a problem?" he asked.

No, insists Japan. Nuclear experts from the U.N. and the World Health Organization seem to agree that 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.

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

"People were panicking," he said.

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 7, there's a lot to remain concerned about.

Reporter Doualy Xaykaothao says even those reporting on the disaster are thinking about an evacuation plan. Her hotel room in Koriyama City swayed back and forth at least three times Sunday. There's no hot water, pockets of places have no electricity and the city itself is broken on so many levels that it can be eerie walking around town.

Relief Operation

The full scale of destruction from the quake and tsunami was not yet known, but there were grim signs that the death toll could soar. The country has been rattled by more than 150 aftershocks since the initial quake, including a strong one off its eastern coast, closer to Tokyo.

The Transport Ministry said all highways from Tokyo leading to quake-hit areas were closed, except for emergency vehicles. Mobile communications were spotty and calls to the devastated areas were going unanswered.

"Everyone wants to get out of the town. But the roads are terrible," said Reiko Takagi, a middle-aged woman, standing outside a taxi company. "It is too dangerous to go anywhere. But we are afraid that winds may change and bring radiation toward us."

Hundreds of thousands of hungry survivors huddled in darkened emergency centers that were cut off from rescuers, aid and electricity. At least 1.4 million households had gone without water since the quake struck and some 1.9 million households were without electricity.

While the government doubled the number of soldiers deployed in the aid effort to 100,000 and sent 120,000 blankets, 120,000 bottles of water and 110,000 liters of gasoline plus food to the affected areas, Prime Minister Kan said electricity would take days to restore. In the meantime, he said, electricity would be rationed with rolling blackouts to several cities, including Tokyo.

Large areas of the countryside remained surrounded by water and unreachable. Fuel stations were closed and people were running out of gasoline for their vehicles.

Dozens of countries have offered assistance. Two U.S. aircraft carrier groups were off Japan's coast and ready to provide assistance. Helicopters were flying from one of the carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan, delivering food and water in Miyagi.

Two other U.S. rescue teams of 72 personnel each and rescue dogs were scheduled to arrive later Sunday, as was a five-dog team from Singapore.

Kan expressed optimism that the quake would create economic demand that would offset some of the cost of the disaster.

Reporter Doualy Xaykaothao and NPR's Rob Gifford contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press

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