Identification of dead taxing as toll soars

Kyodo News

Rescue operations continued Wednesday, with 80,000 Self-Defense Forces members and police officers mobilized in the devastated areas, where temperatures have dropped to midwinter levels.

The National Police Agency said it has confirmed 4,255 deaths in 12 prefectures, while 8,194 people remained unaccounted for in six prefectures as of 8 p.m.

The death toll, however, will inevitably climb as the recovery of bodies, mainly in the tsunami-hit coastal areas, steps up after waters recede and tsunami warnings abate.

“We could rescue more than 26,000 people, but the number of those who died or were unaccounted for has exceeded 10,000,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan told an emergency task force Wednesday afternoon.

Little headway has been made on autopsies, as already understaffed police forces strain to help efforts to identify the dead. Given the situation, the NPA has instructed police to accelerate the autopsy procedures by using photographs. Miyagi police are now considering asking volunteers to handle next of kin so its 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 victims based on belongings recovered with their bodies, an exceptional move.

The central government, meanwhile, officially said Wednesday it will dispatch the SDF reserves, who can be mobilized for crises.

In the first dispatch of reserves since the SDF was established in 1954, around 10,000 will be called up, according to Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa.

Some 430,000 people are staying in more than 2,400 shelters, prompting the Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectural governments to ask the Japan Prefabricated Construction Suppliers & Manufacturers Association to build 32,800 temporary housing units.

Responding to fuel shortages, Iwate Prefecture asked the local oil industry to give priority to emergency vehicles, including those for police, firefighters and for transporting relief goods to the disaster zone.

Signs of reconstruction were seen Wednesday 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 2.7-meter-high tsunami Friday.

Although the trading volume of pollack, flatfish, octopus and other products fell to less than half 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 Hachinohe port.

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

Classrooms reopened at elementary and junior high schools in the city and the municipal board of education was considering sending counselors there to provide psychological care for trauma-hit children.

In Miyagi Prefecture, fuel for cremations at several crematoriums will soon be exhausted.