Search areas expanding but fuel still short

Kyodo News

With access to devastated areas improved by the removal of debris, the search for victims has gradually widened, rescue officials said Thursday, the seventh day since catastrophe struck the Tohoku region.

However, fuel shortages have hampered the delivery of relief supplies to shelters where survivors are staying, while also limiting the use of heavy machinery and heaters, they said.

The lack of relief supplies and adequate medical care has started to take its toll. The Fukushima Prefectural Government said Thursday 14 people died after being transferred to an evacuation center in Iwaki from a hospital in the town of Okuma in accordance with the evacuation directive given after the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

The numbers of dead and unaccounted for has exceeded 14,000 — more than 5,000 deaths and nearly 9,000 missing, while some 380,000 are still staying in shelters, the National Police Agency said, based on a tally at noon Thursday. Other tallies of the missing, however, paint an even darker picture.

Around 2,000 bodies had been identified as of 10 a.m. in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, of which 870 were returned to the next of kin, the NPA said.

The number of partially or completely destroyed buildings reached 100,396, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

In the severely hit coastal city of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, the removal of large amounts of rubble has enabled the Self-Defense Forces to clear roads so rescue workers can search for victims across wider areas.

“There were some areas where (before) we could not enter, but now we can go anywhere by car,” Mayor Futoshi Toba said.

He added, however, that “we need fuel to heat, power heavy machines and deliver relief goods to shelters, but we face difficulties.”

Miyagi Prefecture has almost completed confirming the fate of isolated areas from the air, and it will soon start distributing relief materials to these areas by helicopter, an official said.

Sendai Airport, which was submerged by tsunami following the quake, reopened part of its runway for use by police and SDF aircraft to transport relief materials. It has not been decided when commercial flights will resume.

Express bus service between Sendai and Morioka as well as Morioka and Aomori resumed Thursday, connecting all six prefectural capitals, including Akita, Yamagata and Fukushima, in the Tohoku region.

In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama told a task force that the number of missing people in the city of 160,000 will reach around 10,000.

On Thursday, temperatures in the disaster zone fell to midwinter levels.