The triple impacts of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the resultant tsunami and the threat of meltdown at quake-damaged nuclear reactors has seen 590,000 people evacuated from their homes in Japan, while more than 10,000 are feared dead.
More than half a million evacuees in Japan disasters
The death toll from the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan is likely to exceed 10,000 in one of the affected states alone, an official said yesterday as rescue and relief efforts continued.
The likely death toll from the huge waves that swept through Miyagi came as the confirmed number of dead from Friday's events rose to more than 1,400, while concerns about a possible meltdown at overheating nuclear facilities remained.
The United Nations said a total of 590,000 people had been evacuated in the quake and tsunami disaster, including 210,000 living near the Fukushima nuclear plants.
The port town of Minamisanriku was practically obliterated, with over half of its 17,500 population unaccounted for after a 10-metre tsunami struck the area following the 9.0 magnitude quake. A hospital was one of few structures remaining.
Millions still lack drinking water, power and proper food supplies as the Japanese government announced it was doubling to 100,000, or about 40 per cent of the armed forces, the number of soldiers it was sending to the devastated northeast of Japan's main island of Honshu, with many using helicopters to reach stricken residents.
The country is battling a crisis of unprecedented proportions, however, with concerns about radiation leaks adding to the woes of residents whose communities have been left devastated by the tsunami.
An estimated 310,000 people are staying in shelters, although many of these lack electricity. Meanwhile, the government said electricity disruption was likely from today even in areas where supplies had not previously been knocked out. Limited supplies, the result of the nuclear crisis, would force the introduction of rationing. Water and gas supplies are also likely to be affected.
Japan's prime minister, Naoto Kan, said the country was facing its worst crisis since the end of the Second World War.
"Whether we Japanese can overcome this crisis depends on each of us," he said in a televised address. "I strongly believe that we can get over this great earthquake and tsunami by joining together."
The bodies of 200 people were found along the coast yesterday, and 739 are listed as missing, although the actual total is likely to be far higher than this.
Teams continued to search for those missing along the hundreds of kilometres of coastline that bore the brunt of the tsunami waves unleashed by earthquake which had its epicentre offshore.
Initial estimates suggested the earthquake was 8.9 magnitude, but it was upgraded yesterday, making it the fourth-largest earthquake on record. Officials from Japan's Meteorological Agency said it consisted of three earthquakes that followed rapidly one after the other.
There were scenes of devastation in many villages and towns, including the small town of Tagajo, near Sendai, where streets were littered with smashed cars, twisted metal and broken homes after waves of churning mud and debris raced over towns and farm land and reduced swaths of countryside to a swampy wasteland.
According to the Associated Press, residents said the surge of water from the tsunami waves rapidly reached the first floor of buildings.
One man complained of only being given a piece of bread and a rice ball to eat since the tsunami struck on Friday.
Police cars drove through the town and told residents to move to higher ground, with experts warning there was a continued risk of tsunami waves from severe aftershocks. There have been more than 150 big aftershocks so far.
Many hospitals in affected areas are out of power, and with wards and hallways dark, patients fit to leave were discharged from Sengen General Hospital.
"There is still no water or power, and we've got some very sick people in here," the hospital official Ikuro Matsumoto told the Associated Press.
Fuel supplies are running low, with filling stations shuttered, leading many motorists stranded and communications, such as mobile phones, disrupted.
Many roads leading into affected areas remain blocked, and large areas of countryside are cut off by floodwaters.
Fires continue to blaze in some areas, including at a refinery in the port city of Sendai, a city of one million which was severely damaged by the tsunami.
In one coastal housing district in Fukushima state, rubble is all that remains of an area where 2,000 people lived after the tsunami washed their houses away. Firefighters yesterday drove through the area looking for bodies.
Vast areas of the north-east of Honshu island are said to have become wastelands of mud and debris.
As Japan has activated its own rescue teams and sent tens of thousands of soldiers to the affected areas, so the international community has offered support. At least 69 countries have offered aid, and rescue teams from the United States, South Korea and China are among those already in place.
With concerns over radiation risks and experts predicting a 70 per cent chance of an earthquake of magnitude above 7.0 during the coming days, many countries are advising their citizens against all but essential travel to Japan.
*With additional reporting from Agence Press-France