March 27 (Reuters) - OTSU, Japan - Ninety-three-year-old Kou Murata sat cross-legged on the floor of an elementary school classroom, her home for the past fortnight since the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck Japan’s east coast.
Surrounded by piles of quilts and blankets, she fretted over what was to become of her in the twilight of her life. “I am afraid because people are leaving, and we are alone,” she said, looking small and frail in a jacket decorated with snowmen.
Otsu is well south of the widespread damage from the earthquake, and the towns that were wiped off the map by the monster tsunami that reached higher than 10 meters (33 feet) and swallowed boats, homes, businesses and, rescuers believe, some 20,000 people. In all, more than 27,000 people are dead or missing.
But Otsu is only 70 kilometers (42 miles) south of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, whose reactors have been leaking radiation since March 11, adding a nuclear crisis that has drawn alarm from around the world.
The U.S. government has advised its citizens to stay at least 80 kilometers away from the plant, whose radiation has seeped into local milk and vegetables and, briefly, into Tokyo’s water supply.
The Japanese government has evacuated people within 20 kilometers of the plant, and told people who live with 30 kilometers of the reactors to stay indoors as much as possible. A Geiger counter reading in Otsu on Sunday showed 0.9 microsieverts per hour. That was more than five times the level of 0.16 microsieverts per hour in downtown Tokyo on Sunday, although below levels that would cause concern.
A dose of 50 microsieverts is equivalent to receiving one chest X-ray, according to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
Murata’s daughter Hisae complained that the government has not reached out to help them.
“I want to go back home, but the situation is impossible,” she said. “I applied to the government to get a temporary house, but we need a certificate to say the house was destroyed. Now all the temporary houses have been taken. We thought the government would come to us, but we need to go to them.” Otsu Machi, as it is formally known, is a town of 5,200 that is part of the city of Kitaibaraki at the northern end of Ibaraki prefecture (state), on the border with Fukushima prefecture. While away from the regions hardest hit by the disaster, Otsu nonetheless suffered considerable damage from the quake and tsunami. Some older houses collapsed, and broken furniture littered some streets. On Sunday, people were out repairing damaged roofs and there were lines of up to a kilometer for petrol. Some petrol stations had put out signs saying “Sold Out.” A local McDonalds restaurant was closed at lunchtime. The port was in ruins. Dozens of fishing boats had been tossed onshore and lay on their sides. Rows of wrecked cars stood where they had been crushed into each other. Bent and buckled bicycles lay scattered about. Shops along the harborfront had shattered windows. A Japanese coast guard ship was offshore. Divers in scuba gear dropped into the water from small dinghies.
More than 243,000 people have been living in evacuation since the quake and tsunami catastrophe more than two weeks ago, mostly in school gymnasiums that have been turned into dormitories. Government officials estimate it could be months before they can be moved to temporary housing.
At the school-turned-evacuation center in Otsu, the Muratas and other evacuees watched a large flatscreen television that had been donated. Details of a temporary bus service were scratched onto a classroom blackboard.
The centre had housed up to 400 refugees immediately after the quake, but the number has since dwindled to 43 as people found shelter elsewhere. Most of those left are elderly, relying on oil heaters for warmth at night and left to wonder, like Kou Murata, where their home will be. (Writing by Terril Yue Jones; Editing by Bill Tarrant) (Created by Bill Tarrant)