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Tide of bodies overwhelms quake-hit Japan

TAGAJO, Japan (AP) — A tide of bodies washed up along Japan’s coastline Monday, overwhelming crematoriums, exhausting supplies of body bags and adding to the spiraling humanitarian, economic and nuclear crisis after the massive earthquake and tsunami.

Millions of people faced a fourth night without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures along the northeast coast devastated by Friday’s disasters. The stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries including big names such as Toyota and Honda.

On the coastline of Miyagi prefecture, which took the full force of the tsunami, a Japanese police official said 1,000 bodies were found scattered across the coastline. Kyodo, the Japanese news agency, reported that 2,000 bodies washed up on two shorelines in Miyagi.

In one town in a neighboring prefecture, the crematorium was unable to handle the large number of bodies being brought in for funerals.

“We have already begun cremations, but we can only handle 18 bodies a day. We are overwhelmed and are asking other cites to help us deal with bodies. We only have one crematorium in town,” Katsuhiko Abe, an official in Soma, told The Associated Press.

While the official death toll rose to nearly 1,900, the discovery of the washed-up bodies and other reports of deaths suggest the true number is much higher. In Miyagi, the police chief has said 10,000 people are estimated to have died in his province alone.

The outspoken governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, told reporters Monday that the disaster was “punishment from heaven” because Japanese have become greedy.

Across Japan, most people opt to cremate their dead. With so many bodies, the government on Monday waived a rule requiring permission first from local authorities before cremation or burial to speed up funerals, said Health Ministry official Yukio Okuda.

“The current situation is so extraordinary, and it is very likely that crematoriums are running beyond capacity,” said Okuda. “This is an emergency measure. We want to help quake-hit people as much as we can.”

Friday’s double tragedy has caused unimaginable deprivation for people of this industrialized country — Asia’s richest — which hasn’t seen such hardship since World War II. In many areas there is no running water, no power and four- to five-hour waits for gasoline. People are suppressing hunger with instant noodles or rice balls while dealing with the loss of loved ones and homes.

“People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming,” said Hajime Sato, a government official in Iwate prefecture, one of the hardest hit.

Sato said deliveries of food and other supplies were just 10 percent of what is needed.

The pulverized coast has been hit by hundreds of aftershocks since Friday, the latest one a 6.2 magnitude quake that was followed by a new tsunami scare Monday.

As sirens wailed, soldiers abandoned their search operations and told residents of the devastated shoreline in Soma, the worst hit town in Fukushima prefecture, to run to safety.

They barked out orders: “Find high ground! Get out of here!” Several soldiers were seen leading an old woman up a muddy hillside. The warning turned out to be a false alarm and interrupted the efforts of search parties who arrived in Soma for the first time since Friday to dig out bodies.

Ambulances stood by and body bags were laid out in an area cleared of debris, as firefighters used hand picks and chain saws to clear a jumble of broken timber, plastic sheets, roofs, sludge, twisted cars, tangled power lines and household goods.

Ships were flipped over near roads, a half-mile inland. Officials said one-third of the city of 38,000 people was flooded and thousands were missing.

According to public broadcaster NHK, some 430,000 people are living in emergency shelters or with relatives. Another 24,000 people are stranded, it said.

So far, Tokyo Electric Power is holding off on imposing the rolling blackouts it earlier said it would need but the utility urged people to limit electricity use. To help reduce the power load, many regional train lines were suspended or operating on a limited schedule.

The impact that lack of electricity, damaged roads and railways and ruined plants would have on the world’s third-largest economy helped drag down the share markets on Monday, the first business day since the disasters. The benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average fell 6.2 percent while the broader Topix index lost 7.5 percent.

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