Survivors fret over lack of gas

by Kakumi Kobayashi and Noriyuki Suzuki

Kyodo News

YAMAMOTO, Miyagi Pref. — Quake survivors in a remote Miyagi Prefecture town are faced with a problem not encountered by the survivors of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake — a shortage of gasoline, a commodity essential for daily life in rural areas.

A resident of the town of Yamamoto who had gone to a morgue to look for missing relatives expressed despair at the prospect of having to abandon her search for lack of gasoline for her car.

“Police showed me many photos of victims. But I cannot find my family members,” the woman, who identified herself only as Tamura, said. “I don’t know if I can come here again. I’m almost out of gas.”

The morgue is 30 minutes by car from the center of Yamamoto, which is on a narrow strip of land between the Pacific coast and hills south of Sendai.

The town was home to many apple and strawberry farmers. Nearly half of its 5,500 houses were destroyed or damaged by Friday’s quake and the devastating tsunami that followed it. At magnitude 9.0, the quake was the most powerful ever recorded in Japan and one of the biggest the world has seen.

Infrastructure in the town was severely damaged. “We have no electricity or (running) water. But the most serious problem will be the lack of gas,” Yumiko Sakuma, 52, said while removing rubble in front of her house together with her husband, Tadashi, and other relatives.

Kiyosaburo Sato, the town treasurer, was at a loss as local authorities see no way to procure gasoline for the town’s 16,000 residents, many of them elderly. There are no major transport links and there is not enough kerosene for heaters as the region continues to experience cold weather.

“All five gas stations in our town have been closed and we have no idea when they will resume business,” Sato said outside the three-story town office, which has been off-limits since the quake.

Some evacuees in shelters said they can find no gas stations even in nearby municipalities. It takes 30 minutes to drive to the nearest gas station, which is now closed.

In the days after previous major earthquakes, such as the 1995 quake that mainly hit Kobe and its vicinity, killing more than 6,000, survivors also faced difficulties securing gasoline, but they could eventually find some in nearby cities and towns.

“I know we’re not the only one that has this problem,” Sato said. “The whole of Miyagi Prefecture has similar problems.”

The gasoline shortage in Miyagi and other areas in the Tohoku region is partly attributable to the suspension of supply from a Cosmo Oil Co. refinery in Chiba Prefecture that caught fire and suffered a chain of explosions after the quake.

“We have yet to grasp the situation of shipments to quake-struck areas,” a Cosmo Oil official said.

Major roads to Miyagi, mostly from the Tokyo metropolitan area, and roads in the quake-hit areas have been fractured by the tsunami and jolting, which also makes it hard for delivery vehicles to use them.

The coastal area of Yamamoto, dotted with rice paddies and houses before the tsunami came, is flattened and has been turned into a plain of mud as far as the eye can see.

Battered cars were tossed about and most houses are lying flattened. Logs, tatami mats, family photo albums and ski boots are just some of the everyday items strewn about.

The sheer scale of destruction makes it almost impossible to even guess what came from where. Several hundred residents in the town are presumed dead.

In nearby Iwanuma, workers struggled to remove destroyed vehicles and debris, including used lumber as well as recover bodies, but progress was slow, blocked by the debris.

“We are recovering the bodies that we can see one by one, but it’s hard to find those that may be still under the debris,” said Teruyoshi Aihara, 50, who leads a team of some 30 firefighters and Self-Defense Forces personnel.