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Toll put at 10,000

SOMA, Japan — Rescue workers used chain saws and handpicks today to dig out bodies in Japan's devastated coastal towns, as Asia's richest nation faced a growing humanitarian, nuclear and economic crisis in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami on Friday.

Millions of people spent a third night without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures along the devastated northeastern coast. Also, the stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries, including big names such as Toyota and Honda.

More than 10,000 people are estimated to have died in Friday's twin tragedy that has caused unimaginable deprivation for people of this industrialized country that has not seen such hardships since World War II. In many areas there is no running water, no power and four- to five-hour waits for gasoline. 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.

"We have repeatedly asked the government to help us, but the government is overwhelmed by the scale of damage and enormous demand for food and water," he told the Associated Press. "We are only getting around just 10 percent of what we have requested. But we are patient because everyone in the quake-hit areas is suffering."

The pulverized coast has been hit by more than 150 aftershocks since Friday, the latest one a 6.2 magnitude quake that was followed by a new tsunami scare today. Abandoning their search operations, soldiers told residents of the devastated shoreline in Soma, the worst-hit town in Fukushima prefecture, to run to higher ground.

Sirens wailed and soldiers shouted, "Find high ground! Get out of here!" The warning turned out to be a false alarm.

"This is Japan's most severe crisis since the war ended 65 years ago," Prime Minister Naoto Kan told reporters Sunday, adding that Japan's future would be decided by its response.

On Sunday, 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 handpicks and chain saws to clear an indescribable jumble of broken timber, plastic sheets, roofs, sludge, twisted cars, tangled power lines and household goods.

Helicopters buzzed overhead, surveying the destruction that spanned the horizon. Ships were flipped over near roads, a half mile inland. Officials said one-third of the city of 38,000 people in Soma was flooded and thousands were missing.

According to officials, more than 1,800 people have been confirmed dead — including 200 people whose bodies were found Sunday along the coast — and more than 1,400 were missing in Friday's disasters. Another 1,900 were injured.

Many missing in town

But in Miyagi prefecture, one of the hardest-hit areas, the police chief estimated that more than 10,000 people were killed, police spokesman Go Sugawara told the Associated Press. Miyagi has a population of 2.3 million.

In the town of Minamisanrikucho, 10,000 people — nearly two-thirds of the population — have not been heard from since the tsunami wiped it out, a government spokesman said.

About a third of the town of Soma was wiped out, with several hundred homes washed away. Three districts of the town are now covered in rubble, overturned cars and trucks and waist-high, dirty green water. A tiny pink girl's bicycle, all twisted up, sits near a child's backpack — just some of the personal belongings littering the landscape.

"I'm giving up hope," said Hajime Watanabe, 38, a construction industry worker, who was the first in line at a closed gas station in Sendai, about 60 miles north of Soma. Just then, an emergency worker came over and told him that if the station opens at all, it would pump gasoline only to emergency teams and essential government workers.

"I never imagined we would be in such a situation" Watanabe said. "I had a good life before. Now we have nothing. No gas, no electricity, no water."

He said he was surviving with his family on 60 bottles of water his wife had stored in case of emergencies like this. He walked two hours to find a convenience store that was open and waited in line to buy dried ramen noodles.

Government aid

The government has sent 100,000 troops to spearhead the aid effort. It has sent 120,000 blankets, 120,000 bottles of water and 29,000 gallons of gasoline plus food to the affected areas. However, electricity would take days to restore.

At least 1.4 million households had gone without water since the quake struck and some 1.9 million households were without electricity.

One reason for the loss of power is the damage to at least three nuclear reactors, two of them at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant.

Tokyo Electric Power held off on imposing rolling blackouts planned for today, but called for people to limit electricity use.

Many regional train lines were suspended or operating on a limited schedule to help reduce the power load.

The planned blackouts of about three hours each were meant to help make up for a severe shortfall after nuclear plants were left inoperable due to the earthquake and tsunami.

Japan's central bank says it is injecting a record $183.8 billion into money markets to stem worries about the world's third-largest economy.

Stocks fell in early trading today on the first business day after the disasters. The benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average shed 494 points, or 4.8 percent, to 9,760.45 just after the market opened.

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.

A bit of good news

One rare bit of good news was Sunday's rescue of a 60-year-old man swept away by the tsunami who clung to the roof of his house for two days until a military vessel spotted him waving a red cloth about 10 miles offshore.

Japanese officials raised their estimate Sunday of the quake's magnitude to 9.0, a notch above the U.S. Geological Survey's reading of 8.9. Either way, it was the strongest quake ever recorded in Japan, which lies on a seismically active arc. A volcano on the southern island of Kyushu — hundreds of miles from the quake' epicenter — also resumed spewing ash and rock Sunday after a couple of quiet weeks, Japan's weather agency said.

Dozens of countries have offered assistance. Two U.S. aircraft carrier groups were off Japan's coast and ready to help. Helicopters were flying from one of the carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan, delivering food and water in Miyagi.

Two other U.S. rescue teams of 72 personnel each and rescue dogs arrived Sunday, as did a five-dog team from Singapore.

Still, large areas of the countryside remained surrounded by water and unreachable. Fuel stations were closed, though at some, cars waited in lines hundreds of vehicles long.

Toll put at 10,000 03/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 14, 2011 1:52am]

    

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