Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Villagers talk of terrible gamble that faced fishermen

By Mure Dickie in Ofunato

Published: March 16 2011 19:14 | Last updated: March 16 2011 19:14

They found the body high up in a spreading pine tree. Soldiers of the 21st infantry regiment of Japan’s Ground Self Defence Force, had come to the scenic cove of Kamaishi Bay as part of relief efforts launched after last Friday’s huge earthquake off the nation’s north-eastern coast.

They saw the body tangled among fishing nets and buoys that had caught in the branches 14 metres off the ground. It was a fisherman from the nearby village of Hongo, who died while trying to escape in his boat from the tsunami unleashed by the magnitude 9 tremor.

The fisherman, a quiet man, had tried to save his boat by sailing out to sea before the wave struck, instead of fleeing to higher ground. Similar attempts by a few other villagers with bigger boats were successful, since tsunamis are far less dangerous in open water. But for this man the choice was fatal.

“It was an all-or-nothing gamble,” says Shigeru Chiba, a resident and volunteer fireman. “Do you think about your life, or do you think about your livelihood?”

Many survivors in the fishing village must also deal with the consequences of their choices. They have their lives, but their boats are gone.

The soldiers had no way to bring the fisherman down when they found him five days after the wave swept him into the forest that clads the steep hills around the cove. They could only return the next day to show local firemen where he was.

Such difficulties have been an all too common amid the huge relief operation along the north-eastern coast, which bore the brunt of the tsunami and which was home to the vast majority of the 3,771 people confirmed dead and the 8,000 more still missing. Far fewer survivors have been rescued from the wreckage of their homes than would be expected after an earthquake, for the tsunami drowned as well as crushed. Even providing the meagre comfort of a body to cremate will in many cases be impossible, as the wave took many of its victims with it when it retreated back into the sea.

In nearby Ofunato city, for example, most districts have already been checked for survivors and for the remains of the dead, and hope is now fading for the recovery of many of the 191 residents still listed as “whereabouts unknown”.

“I heard there are some bodies floating in the sea within Ofunato Bay, and I guess some have flowed into the Pacific Ocean,” says Kimiaki Toda, city mayor.

Hongo village has other problems, too. The tightly knit community of 350 people is still without electricity and tap water. Only a few residents were lost in the tsunami – a much lower toll than in nearby hamlets – but it destroyed more than 50 homes built on low ground behind the 8m-high sea defence wall. The homeless are being given shelter by their neighbours, but food is running short. The Self Defence Force soldiers who finally arrived on Wednesday brought some food, but basic rations are still stuck at two rice balls per person a day.

Asked if they are satisfied with the government’s response, the general view of Mr Chiba’s fellow volunteers is that much more is needed. A dearth of information and lack of supplies of food, cooking oil and fuel are wearing patience thin.

“The village can’t cope with this by itself,” says Masayuki Chiba, who heads the volunteer firefighter detachment. “People are feeling very fragile.”

Yet to outside observers, the state’s overall response has, in many ways, been impressive. About 1,500 troops, professional firefighter and police from around the country are deployed in Ofunato alone.

A dearth of petrol and diesel across north-eastern Japan is causing huge problems for survivors, but limited deliveries and policies of restricting sales by petrol stations means at least emergency vehicles can move freely. The SDF deployment also appears to have been far smoother than when a huge quake levelled parts of western Kobe city in 1995. Then, the local authorities did not realise that the SDF needed an official request before they launch rescue efforts, an error that delayed action and may have cost lives.

Major Kozo Kumagai of the SDF’s 9th logistics support regiment says that its advance units arrived in battered Iwate prefecture from their base in the neighbouring prefecture of Aomori on the same day of the quake. The logistics regiment has since been supporting infantry, artillery and anti-aircraft regiments that are searching for victims, clearing roads and distributing basic provisions along the coast.

Shortly after the 1995 quake, however, Japan revised its anti-disaster guidelines to allow the military to dispatch troops on its own authority for emergency operations.

The soldiers of the 21st regiment say they will be back today to help recover the fisherman’s body. But his death will remain a reminder that Hongo will need plenty of other help in the months and years to come.

Snowfall slows Japan quake relief

By FT reporters and agencies

Published: March 16 2011 13:20 | Last updated: March 16 2011 17:51

Heavy snowfall in the areas worst affected by Japan’s earthquake and tsunami were continuing to hamper rescue efforts on Thursday intensifyiing the challenge facing both relief workers and the hundreds of thousands of survivors.

Relief workers said their main concern was for the elderly, who make up the majority of the scores of people packed into shelters.

“Snow has just come down in a blanket. Visibility is just 40 metres,” Patrick Fuller, of the International Federation of the Red Cross, said on Wednesday from what remained of Otsuchi, a fishing hamlet in Iwate prefecture.

“People are still working, the army is out here. But the fire service has taken off because they are worried they won’t get back to their base because of the snow.”

Police on Thursday confirmed more than 5,000 deaths, and almost 9,000 still missing. The death toll is expected to rise as relief workers find bodies in previously inaccessible areas. 

Rescue and relief workers said the snow had affected what little chance they had of finding any more survivors.

Naoto Kan, prime minister, told an emergency task force meeting on Wednesday: “We could rescue more than 26,000 people, but the number of those who died or are unaccounted for has exceeded 10,000.’’

Many survivors still face shortages of food and water, no electricity or heating and frequent aftershocks. With more than 430,000 people living in temporary shelters, the government said that immediate needs included blankets, mattresses, latrines, water and fuel.

The government has asked private companies to boost their production of food - including rice balls, water bottles, bread, noodles and formula milk - in order to help deal with the crisis.

The meteorology agency said temperatures could drop as low as -2 Celsius on Wednesday in Sendai, the city closest to the earthquake’s epicentre. Japanese broadcaster NHK offered tips on ways to stay warm –- such as wrapping one’s body in newspaper and cling film – and how to boil water using empty food cans and candles.

As rescue workers continued their grim task, aid agencies said that dealing with the psychological impact of the quake was an urgent priority.

“For the 80 Japanese Red Cross medical teams deployed to provide care for the evacuees, coping with trauma will fast become the biggest challenge,” Mr Fuller said. “The stoicism amongst local people is extraordinary, but the apparent calm is deceptive. The blank expressions of most hide the trauma that they have suffered.”

The government has requested local authorities send child welfare workers to evacuation centres and child counselling centres.

In Sendai, the psychiatric wards at the 1,308-bed Tohoku University Hospital were full as people sought treatment for anxiety and other mental problems, Katsutoshi Furukawa, a brain surgeon, said by telephone. Supplies of sedatives were “limited, so we are prescribing the minimum amount” before sending patients home, he added.

In other areas of Japan, worries continued over a potential worsening of the nuclear crisis, with people stocking up on basic supplies. Some reported queuing for up to three hours to fill up their cars with petrol.

“Some of young people are seriously thinking of moving to southern part of Japan due to potential stronger exposure to radiation remit from accidents in Fukushima nuclear power plant,” said Seiichiro Muta, a Financial Times reader. “Due to shortage of electricity provided by Tokyo Electric Power, trains that are able to run daily are limited in number. This situation is giving a great pain on most workers who work in the centre of Tokyo.”

Stoic residents learn to cope in sombre capital

By Gwen Robinson and Michiyo Nakamoto in Tokyo

Published: March 15 2011 18:41 | Last updated: March 15 2011 18:41

In many societies, a second earthquake coming just days after the biggest quake and tsunami in recent history and during a nuclear crisis might have triggered fresh panic in an already traumatised country.

But late on Tuesday night, in the hours following the earthquake that hit Shizuoka in the Chubu region south-west of Tokyo, people simply looked weary and flat. Many sat quietly texting or reading news on their mobile phones.

The 6.1-magnitude quake, which jolted Tokyo and caused at least six injuries, capped a day that started with news of further explosions at the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant north-east of Tokyo and during which they heard their prime minister, Naoto Kan, warn of “the very high risk” of more radiation contamination from the plant.

They were also deluged with increasingly disturbing images of the widening trauma in the ravaged north-east and the beginning of a series of power outages that is likely to last weeks, if not months.

On top of that came news of the precipitous slide in Japan’s stock market, warnings from foreign embassies that their nationals should leave Japan, and a growing exodus of foreign as well as some Japanese residents from Tokyo. Many have left either for destinations abroad, if they managed to secure seats on fully loaded planes, or to cities west of the capital such as Osaka, Kyoto and Fukuoka.

A group of expatriate mothers on Tuesday gathered for coffee in the shopping district of Aoyama and compared notes about the best places to take refuge. “Singapore, Hong Kong – I don’t care, I just want to get my children out, everybody else has,” said one British woman married to an investment banker. No one spoke about when they would return.

Entertainment and shopping areas, normally teeming with people late into the night, were empty. Many shops and restaurants remained shut or closed early on Tuesday after shutting on Monday in preparation for rolling power cuts by Tepco, the country’s largest energy provider and operator of the stricken power plant.

Subdued lighting and “out of service” signs posted on inactive escalators in public areas added to the sombre atmosphere.

Shoppers had earlier crowded into supermarkets throughout the city. There was stark evidence of shortages of staples such as rice, milk, bottled water and onigiri rice balls. There were also long lines outside fuel stations. Concerns over supplies drove the continuing rush by Tokyo residents to procure flashlights, batteries and candles in preparation for blackouts.

Tokyoites – at least those who remain in the city – continue to go stoically about their business, at least for now.

Patience wears thin at Tepco’s bungling

By David Pilling

Published: March 15 2011 17:43 | Last updated: March 15 2011 19:58

When the leader of a country asks the company fighting to prevent a nuclear catastrophe “what the hell is going on?”, you know he has departed from the script.

Naoto Kan on Tuesday lost his temper with Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the explosion-prone Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.

He could not understand why he had not been told for a whole hour about the first explosion at the plant in the early hours of Saturday morning.

After hearing that Tepco was evacuating 740 “non-essential” staff from the complex – leaving only 50 technicians to fight the worst civil nuclear crisis in Japan’s history – it appeared to cross Mr Kan’s mind that Tepco might abandon the plant altogether. Conjuring the language of war, he is reported as saying: “Retreat is unthinkable.”

So far, the Japanese government has managed its rescue operation as well, perhaps even better, than could be expected. It has marshalled tens of thousands of Self Defence Force troops to the tsunami-pounded coastline and welcomed foreign rescue teams. This is a distinct improvement on 1995, the year of the Kobe earthquake, when it was more reticent on both counts.

Alas, the same cannot be said for efforts to contain the crisis unfolding in the gaseous innards of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. Certainly, one must be careful about criticising the response to an unprecedented event. But Tepco, particularly in its communications, has looked more like the Keystone Kops than is desirable in an organisation struggling to prevent a nuclear meltdown.

Tepco’s attempt to impart information has left the public mostly confused and incredulous. At press conferences, anxious-looking junior executives hang their heads like naughty schoolboys, and apologise for “causing inconvenience”, a stock Japanese phrase. In matters of substance, they appear to know little.

“The public relations of Tepco is very poor,” said Shijuro Ogata, a retired Bank of Japan official who has hardly ventured outside his house in a Tokyo suburb since Friday’s earthquake struck. “It is very clumsy and they don’t seem to be so knowledgeable.”

Michael Cucek, a political analyst living in Tokyo, was more damning still about the nuclear agency and Tepco. “They have no crisis management because they were never ready for a crisis,” he said. “The fear is Tepco is not telling the whole truth. They are not in the habit of telling everything they know.”

When it comes to keeping the public informed, the record of Japan’s nuclear industry is not inspiring.
An official wears protective clothing as he waits to scan people for radiation
Safety fears: an official wears protective clothing as he scans people for radiation at a rescue centre in Koriyama

In 1995, there was a cover-up of the extent of an accident at the Monju fast-breeder reactor. Four years later, three workers at the Tokaimura reactor suffered high doses of radiation when safety measures were circumvented. Then in 2002, Tepco was caught falsifying safety data. After a 2007 6.6-magnitude earthquake, Tepco admitted that another plant had not been designed to withstand such tremors. The industry, said Mr Cucek, has had “an attitude problem about safety”.

Ordinary Japanese have been almost as angry at Tepco over the handling of its rolling blackout schedule, the communications and execution of which have been patchy. On Monday, planned power cuts never materialised, enraging a public used to precision. “This was an unplanned, planned blackout,” joked Mr Ogata. “Isn’t it better to have the blackout as planned?”

The government has fared better. Yukio Edano, chief government spokesman, has won praise for speaking directly and regularly. Like Mr Kan he has taken to wearing a bomber jacket. Unlike Mr Kan, he has become a hero of the Twitter world, sending out regular updates to a public hungry for information.

Even so, one must ask why the government has not been better at extracting information from Tepco. Mr Kan was briefing opposition leaders on Tuesday unaware that a third blast had occurred. His subsequent decision to head a joint taskforce with Tepco appears to be an admission that the cabinet needs to take more control.

Many Japanese said they were unhappy with the management of the nuclear crisis. But some were more forgiving. One Tokyo resident said he was extremely nervous about the events at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant. But he thought the government, and even Tepco, was doing all it could. “Even Tepco has never faced anything like this before,” he said. “They are doing their best.”

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