80,000 mobilized for rescue, deaths top 4,300


SEARCHING FOR SURVIVORS — SENDAI, Japan, Rescue workers search through the debris for survivors and victims of the monstrous March 11 earthquake and tsunami in the village of Noda, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan, on March 14. Kyodo News photo

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Rescue and relief operations continued March 16 following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, with 80,000 Self-Defense Forces personnel, police officers and firefighters mobilized in the devastated areas, where temperatures have dropped to midwinter levels.

The National Police Agency said it has confirmed 4,314 deaths in 12 prefectures, as of midnight March 16, while 8,606 people remained unaccounted for in six prefectures.

The death toll, however, will inevitably climb higher as the recovery of bodies mainly in the tsunami-hit coastal areas started in full swing after waters there held back and tsunami warnings were lifted.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan told an emergency task force meeting March 16 afternoon, “We [managed to] rescue more than 26,000 people, but the number of those who died or are unaccounted for has exceeded 10,000.”

Autopsies on the victims have made little headway as police officers, amid a shortage of hands, are busy dealing with those who are trying to identify the bodies of family members.

Given the situation, the NPA instructed local police to accelerate autopsy procedures by using photographs. Miyagi prefectural police, for their part, are now considering asking volunteer workers to help the victims’ families so police officers can focus on postmortem examinations.

In the severely hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, local police started announcing the names, ages and addresses of people whose bodies have been recovered, based on their belongings, an exceptional move.

The central government, meanwhile, officially decided March 16, five days after the quake, to dispatch SDF reserve personnel, who can be mobilized for contingencies, for disaster relief operations.

In the first dispatch of reserve personnel since the SDF were established in 1954, some 10,000 of them will be called up, according to Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa.

Some 420,000 people are still staying in more than 2,200 shelters in eight prefectures, prompting the prefectural governments of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima to request Japan Prefabricated Construction Suppliers & Manufacturers Association to build 32,800 temporary homes in total.

The number of people evacuating from Fukushima Prefecture to nearby prefectures is increasing amid growing fears of a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No.1 power station, five days after the mega earthquake crippled it.

Nearby prefectures, including Niigata and Yamagata, have accepted a total of 5,000 evacuees from outside the prefectures, local governments said, adding most of them are believed to be from Fukushima.

Immigration authorities, meanwhile, have decided to provide information on foreign nationals staying in Japan and their fingerprints, if necessary, to local governments to check their whereabouts or identify them.

The Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau also said it has decided to accept inquiries about whether foreign nationals staying in the quake-hit Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures have left the country so their families and friends can know about their situation. Inquiries can be made by telephone, fax or e-mail.

Signs of reconstruction were seen March 16 in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, where numerous houses were destroyed by tsunami, while ships and cars are still scattered throughout.

A fish market there resumed auctions for the first time in five days after its marine product processing facilities and large refrigerators were severely damaged by a 2.7-meter (8.5 feet)-high tsunami on March 11.

Although the trading volume of pollack, flatfish, octopus and other products fell to less than half of the usual level at some 50 tons, 63-year-old Yoshiro Kawamura, head of the market, said, “It’s our mission to ship fish nationwide from the Hachinohe port.”

“I expect fishermen in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures to sell their catches at this port after they can fish again,” Kawamura said.

Classrooms reopened at elementary and junior high schools in the city, but the municipal education board is considering sending counselors there to provide psychological care for children who have experienced trauma following the disaster.

In Iwate Prefecture, the Sanriku Railway operating along the coastal area, known as the Sanriku seashore, partially resumed operations March 16, carrying a heading marker saying, “Let’s Do Our Best, Sanriku.”

At the task force meeting, Kan said, “We need to take a step toward reconstruction” while tackling immediate concerns, including confusion at the troubled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, where a fire broke out again at the No. 4 reactor.

In the face of the nuclear troubles, many foreign nationals staying in Japan rushed to Narita International Airport to return home. Some arrived there before purchasing air tickets over fears of radiation contamination.

Kan told the meeting, “We will carefully implement monitoring and seek to calm the public by clearly telling them if the situation is dangerous or safe.”

In a bid to cope with fuel shortages, Iwate Prefecture asked the local oil industry to give priority to emergency vehicles, including those for police and firefighters and for transporting relief materials to quake-hit areas.

In Miyagi Prefecture, fuel at several crematoriums to cremate bodies will soon be exhausted.

In order to cover electricity shortages, Tokyo Electric Power Co. carried out rolling blackouts for the third consecutive day by cutting electricity in the Tokyo vicinity.

The Bank of Japan, meanwhile, offered an additional 13.8 trillion yen (some $170 billion) to money markets, bringing to 55.6 trillion yen the total emergency funds made available by the central bank to protect the nation’s banking system from the negative impact of the massive quake.

Aftershocks also continued, with a strong quake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.0 jolting Tokyo and its vicinity the afternoon of March 16, measuring lower 5 on the Japanese intensity scale of 7 in parts of Chiba Prefecture.

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