TAKAJO // A tide of bodies washed up along Japan's coastline after last Friday's devastating earthquake and tsunami has seen crematoriums were overwhelmed and rescue workers ran out of body bags as the nation faced the grim reality of a mounting humanitarian, economic and nuclear crisis today after a calamitous tsunami.
Millions of people were facing a fourth night without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures in the northeast devastated by an earthquake and the wave it spawned. Meanwhile, a third reactor at a nuclear power plant lost its cooling capacity and the fuel rods at another were at least briefly fully exposed, raising fears of a meltdown. The stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries including big names such as Toyota and Honda.
A Japanese police official said 1,000 washed up bodies were found scattered today across the coastline of Miyagi prefecture.
The discovery raised the official death toll to about 2,800, but the Miyagi police chief has said that more than 10,000 people are estimated to have died in his province alone, which has a population of 2.3 million.
In one town in a neighbouring prefecture, the crematorium was unable to handle the crush 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.
In Japan, most people opt to cremate their dead, a process that, like burial, requires permission first from local authorities. But the government took the rare step Monday of waiving that requirement 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," Mr Okuda said. "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 in Japan, which has not seen such hardship since the Second World War. In many areas there is no running water, no power and four to five-hour waits for petrol. 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 three hardest hit.
He said authorities were receiving just 10 per cent of the food and other supplies they need. Body bags and coffins were running so short that the government may turn to foreign funeral homes for help, he said.
"We have requested funeral homes across the nation to send us many body bags and coffins. But we simply don't have enough," he told AP. "We just did not expect such a thing to happen. It's just overwhelming."
The pulverised 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 today. 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 higher ground.
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.
Search parties 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 an indescribable jumble of broken timber, plastic sheets, roofs, sludge, twisted cars, tangled powerlines and household goods.
Helicopters buzzed overhead, surveying the destruction that spanned the horizon. Ships were flipped over near roads, a kilometre inland. Officials said one-third of the city of 38,000 people was flooded and thousands were missing.
In addition to the more than 2,800 people who have been confirmed dead, more than 1,400 were missing. Another 1,900 were injured.
Japanese officials have refused to speculate on how high the death toll could rise, but experts who dealt with the 2004 Asian tsunami offered a dire outlook.
Hery Harjono, a senior geologist with the Indonesian Science Institute, who was closely involved with the aftermath of the earlier disaster that killed 230,000 people, of whom only 184,000 bodies were found, said: "It's a miracle really, if it turns out to be less than 10,000 [dead]."
He drew parallels between the two disasters, notably that many bodies in Japan may have been sucked out to sea or remain trapped beneath rubble as they did in Indonesia's hardest-hit Aceh province. But he also stressed that Japan's infrastructure, high-level of preparedness and city planning to keep houses away from the shore could mitigate the human losses.
The Japanese government has sent 100,000 troops to lead the aid effort. It has sent 120,000 blankets, 120,000 bottles of water and 110,000 litres of petrol plus food to the affected areas. However, electricity will take days to restore.
According to the public broadcaster NHK, some 430,000 people are living in emergency shelters or with relatives. Another 24,000 people are stranded, it said.
One reason for the loss of power is the damage several nuclear reactors in the area. At one plant, Fukushima Dai-ichi, three reactors have lost the ability to cool down, the latest today. Explosions have destroyed the containment buildings of the other two reactors. Fuel rods at the third were fully exposed, at least briefly, today.
Operators were dumping sea water into all three reactors in a last-ditch attempt to cool their superheated containers that faced possible meltdown. If that happens, they could release radioactive material in the air.
But Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, said the inner containment vessel holding the nuclear fuel rods at the reactor that experienced an explosion today was intact, allaying some fears of the risk to the environment. The containment vessel of the first reactor is also safe, according to officials.
However, people within a 20-kilometre radius were ordered to stay inside homes following the blast. AP journalists felt today's explosion 40 kilometers away.
Military personnel on helicopters returning to ships with the US 7th Fleet registered low-level of radioactive contamination today, but were cleared after a scrub-down. As a precaution, the ship shifted to a different area off the coast.
More than 180,000 people have evacuated the area around the plants in recent days.
Tokyo Electric Power held off on imposing rolling blackouts planned for today, but called for people to try to limit electricity use.
Edano said the utility was still prepared to go ahead with power rationing if necessary. The decision reflected an understanding of the profound inconveniences many would experience.
Many regional train lines were suspended or operating on a limited schedule to help reduce the power load.
Japan's central bank injected 15 trillion yen (Dh673 billion) into money markets Monday to stem worries about the world's third-largest economy.
Stocks fell today on the first business day after the disasters. The benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average shed nearly 634 points, or 6.2 per cent, to 9,620.49, extending losses from Friday. Escalating concerns over the fallout of the disaster triggered a plunge that hit all sectors. The broader Topix index lost 7.5 percent.
Japan's economy has been ailing for 20 years, barely managing to eke out weak growth between slowdowns. It is saddled by a massive public debt that, at 200 per cent of gross domestic product, is the biggest among industrialised nations.
Preliminary estimates put repair costs from the earthquake and tsunami in the tens of billions of dollars, a huge blow for an already fragile economy that lost its place as the world's No 2 to China last year.