(Adds comment by Medecins Sans Frontieres)
By Chang-Ran Kim
OTSUCHI, Japan, March 17 Nearly a week after
their home town was annihilated in a catastrophic tsunami, the
1,000-plus survivors of the small Japanese fishing town of
Otsuchi are hanging by a thread.
With no water or electricity and scant food, survivors keep
each other company at one of three emergency shelters on the
outskirts of what remains of the town.
"You can't wash your hands or face," says 72-year-old Katsu
Sawayama, seated in the middle of the high school gymnasium, the
biggest of the shelters in a town where more than half the
17,000 residents are still missing.
Adding to their woes, a heavy snowstorm sent temperatures
plunging to below zero and blanketed acres of tsunami debris in
While international attention has been focused on
Japan's efforts to stop damage at a quake-hit nuclear power
plant from spiralling out of control, a massive salvage and
rescue operation has slowly been gathering steam.
Scores of villages, hamlets and towns lining Japan's
northeast coast were flattened by tsunami waves that rolled in
minutes after Friday's 9.0 magnitude earthquake.
While the official toll stands at less than 5,000, thousands
more are listed as missing and the final tally is likely to
About 850,000 households in the north were still without
electricity, Tohuku Electric Power Co. said, while the
government said at least 1.5 million households lacked running
"There are some cases of dehydration," said Eric Ouannes,
general director for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Japan, after he
visited shelters in northern Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.
"We are seeing very small health problems but these can
deteriorate. We have been restarting treatment for elderly
people who have hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular
problems," he added.
Like tens of thousands of people along Japan's northeast
coast, the Otsuchi survivors have nowhere else to go.
Meals are barely enough to sustain them -- half a rice ball
and a small bowl of miso soup is a luxury; a slice of bread
might have to feed a family of three.
"Whatever they give us, we just gratefully receive. At least
they're feeding us three times a day," said Sayawama.
RADIATION FEARS DETRACT FROM OTHER PROBLEMS
International experts say that panic over fears of radiation
leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant could detract
from problems likely to affect survivors of the quake and
tsunami, such as the cold, access to clean water and getting
"People are getting so concerned about what are at the moment
pretty low levels of radiation," said Dr Richard Wakeford of
Britain's University of Manchester. "But the real problems ...
are in dealing with the earthquake and the tsunami.
"If this was a developing country, we'd have people going
down in their hundreds and thousands with the likes of typhoid
and cholera by now. The questions should be: Where is the sewage
going? What is the state of the drinking water? If I were a
public health official, that would be my principle concern."
Ayumi Yamazaki, 21, is worries her 1-1/2-year-old daughter
is not getting enough to eat.
"We rarely get to eat rice, so I'm a little concerned," she
said. "But it's better than not eating at all."
Maths teacher Naoshi Moriya, volunteering at the evacuation
site's make-shift logistics office, says he's worried that it is
only a matter of time before food runs out.
Despite the privations there's a sense of order in the
evacuation centre. In late afternoon, a neat queue forms in one
hallway of the refuge shelter for men under 60 to collect clean
underwear sent in through charity.
"Long-sleeve undergarments are reserved for the elderly," a
volunteer who lost her home says, apologising to one man.
Outside help is slowly and sparingly arriving.
A Self Defence Forces truck carrying a fresh supply of
water arrived late afternoon on Wednesday, and two Red Cross
teams arrived for the first time to treat patients.
"It's cold today so many people have fallen ill, getting
diarrhoea and other symptoms," said Takanori Watanabe, a Red
Cross doctor from Himeji, western Japan. He says 80 people
queued up when they arrived.
Elsewhere there were poignant human touches.
Two soldiers picked through the rubble and placed personal
effects such as photographs in a box so that survivors might be
able to reclaim cherished memories.
"They belong to someone," said one. "You never know."
(Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn; Editing by Nick Macfie)