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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rescue efforts in rubble of devastated Japan hampered by 275 aftershocks as fears grow for 10,000 missing in port city

By Jo Macfarlane

-10,000 people missing in Minamisanriku after double disaster
-Official death toll hits 574, but many hundreds believed to be buried under rubble or washed away by waves
-Explosion at nuclear power plant, but experts say reactor is not at risk
-Number of people contaminated with radiation could reach 160
-Region hit by hundreds of aftershocks, some up to 6.8-magnitude
-Rescue operation begins but some areas still cut off by road damage and flood waters
-70,000 people evacuated to shelters in Sendai
-Force of quake shifts Japan 8ft to the East

Villagers carry relief goods in Minami Sanriku, the worst-hit area where almost 10,000 people have gone missing

Just 48 hours ago, it was a picturesque fishing town where tourists flocked to enjoy the coastal air and natural hot springs. But this horrifying picture shows all that remains of Minami Sanriku after it was destroyed by the tsunami that has wreaked devastation across Japan.

Last night, the official death toll from Friday’s 8.9 magnitude earthquake and ensuing tidal wave stood at 574, but more than 1,700 people are believed to have been buried in the rubble or washed away by waves.

Rescue efforts have been hampered by hundreds of aftershocks, and it is feared the final death count could rise sharply once a full picture of the catastrophe emerges. In Minami Sanriku alone, 10,000 people could have died – more than half of the city’s population.

Japanese home guard help survivors to safety in the flooded town of Minami Sanriku

A motorcyclist passes by an overturned fishing boat in Hachinohe, Aomori, northern Japan

It only took a few minutes for the 30ft wave to wash the town away with terrifying force. The locals desperately tried to escape to higher ground. But most did not stand a chance.

It is hard to imagine any life remains among the debris. Where last week fishing boats bobbed in the harbour, it is now impossible to tell where the sea begins and the land ends.

One of the few buildings left standing is the town’s Shizugawa Hospital – the large white building to the centre left of this picture. But the rest of what was once the town centre is flooded with filthy sea water.

Other structures lie battered and smashed in piles of broken wood and twisted metal, but most are now little more than debris.

Just visible through the murky waters towards the bottom left of the photograph are the painted stripes of a zebra crossing.

There are vague remnants of roads and the occasional outline of a flooded car, and it is just possible to see the half-submerged outline of the town’s athletics track towards the top left of the picture.

Minami Sanriku lies about 55 miles west of the earthquake’s epicentre and directly in the path of the subsequent tsunami.

Japan has experienced more than 275 aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater since Friday's earthquake, further hampering rescue efforts.

Some have been as powerful as 6.8-magnitude, and it is feared that if an aftershock of a magnitude over 7 occurred it could cause another tsunami.

According to the USGS National Earthquake Information Center, Japan has experienced between 12 and 15 aftershocks per hour since Friday's quake, and it is not known when they will stop.

In the city of Sendai, authorities have had to evacuate nearly 70,000 people to shelters. To add to problems, there has been a spate of panic buying as most petrol stations and supermarkets are out of service.

At least a million households had gone without water since the quake, and food and gasoline were quickly running out across the coastal regions hit by the tsunami.

People walk through the rubble that will take months to sort out in Rikuzentakakata, Iwate Prefecture

A patient is evacuated from a destroyed hospital in Otsuchi Town, Iwate Prefecture

A woman wrapped in a blanket stares shell-shocked at the damagae in Ishimaki City

A car sits on top of a small building in a destroyed neighborhood in Sendai

The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City in an incredible picture taken on Friday but only just released

A river bank in Sendai is destroyed beyond recognition following the tsunami

And in Fukushima, thousands of people were forced to flee the vicinity of an earthquake-crippled Japanese nuclear plant after a radiation leak and authorities faced a fresh threat with the failure of the cooling system in a second reactor.

The government insisted radiation levels were low following Saturday's explosion, saying the blast had not affected the reactor core container, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had been told by Japan that levels 'have been observed to lessen in recent hours'.

But Japan's nuclear safety agency said the number of people exposed to radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi plant could reach 160. Workers in protective clothing were scanning people arriving at evacuation centres for radioactive exposure.

These pictures reveal the brutal aftermath of the tsunami, but an amateur video posted online, filmed by one of the town’s residents, shows the terrifying moment the wave hit.

It shows people desperately driving uphill to escape the wave and the road lined with locals watching open-mouthed as their homes are swept away.

The horrifying footage focuses briefly on those people caught in the traffic, including emergency vehicles, which failed to escape in time. One bus narrowly misses being washed away after speeding uphill as those filming shout ‘Run! Run!’.

Two hundred people were said to have been evacuated from the roof of the hospital and police believe the tidal wave may have washed away an entire train.

One photograph showed the letters ‘SOS’ written on the ground in the car park of the Minami Sanriku Elementary School. The letter H, surrounded by a circle, had also been added, a plea for helicopter assistance.

Tsunami warnings were issued to the entire Pacific seaboard, but the worst fears were not realised. Widespread damage was caused to some coast areas, including California, but there were no reports of fatalities.

President Barack Obama has pledged U.S. assistance and said one aircraft carrier was already in Japan and a second was on its way.

Japan's worst previous earthquake was an 8.3-magnitude temblor in Kanto which killed 143,000 people in 1923. A 7.2-magnitude quake in Kobe killed 6,400 people in 1995.

The country lies on the 'Ring of Fire' - an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching across the Pacific where around 90 per cent of the world's quakes occur.

An estimated 230,000 people in 12 countries were killed after a quake triggered a massive tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004, in the Indian Ocean.

A magnitude 8.8 quake which struck off the coast of Chile in February last year also generated a tsunami which killed 524 people. Authorities mistakenly told people in coastal regions there was no danger of a tsunami.

Orderly queues are springing up all over Japan as people face a shortage of food, drinks and daily necessities - like this one in Shiogama

People queue up for food rations at a supermarket in Ogawara, Miyagi Prefecture

Shelves are bare in the suburbs of Tokyo, far from the quake's epicentre

A pile of burnt out vehicles that were ready to be exported are piled in disarray at a port at Tokai village in Ibaraki prefecture - and an aerial view of the devastation in the town of Onagawa, Miyagi

An old man is piggy-backed to safety after surviving the tsunami in Tagajo near Sendai, while in Otsuchicho in Iwate Prefecture, a grandmother minds a young child

A woman searching for her missing husband looks under an overturned truck after an earthquake and tsunami struck Minamisanriku

A convoy of emergency vehicles drive past rubble in Natory City

Members of Japanese Self-Defence Force prepare a convoy for search and rescue operations in Tagajo, Miyagi Prefecture

Flames and smoke rise from a petroleum refining plant next to a heating power station in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture



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