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Is it a dream? Stunned Japan grapples with disaster

 

A wrecked airplane lies nose-deep in splintered wood from homes in the port city of Sendai. About an hour's drive away, workers in white masks and protective clothing scan thousands of people for radiation.

Two days after a ferocious earthquake and tsunami submerged Japan's northeast coast, killing hundreds and forcing tens of thousands from their homes, Japan is struggling to comprehend the scale of one of its worst disasters.

"Is it a dream? I just feel like I am in a movie or something," said Ichiro Sakamoto, 50, in Hitachi, a city in Ibaraki Prefecture. "Whenever I am alone I have to pinch my cheek to check whether it's a dream or not."

In Sendai, a port city of one million people, survivors and rescue workers picked through piles of rubbish mixed with wood, and other debris from buildings and homes, searching for belongings and removing bodies.

"There have been tsunami before but they were just small. No one ever thought that it could be like this," said Michiko Yamada, a 75-year-old in Rikuzentakata, a nearly flattened village in far-northern Iwate prefecture. "The tsunami was black and I saw people on cars and an old couple get swept away right in front of me."

In Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, about 105 km south (65 miles) of Sendai, thousands of people evacuated from areas around a crippled nuclear power plant were scanned for radiation exposure as authorities struggled to cope with the aftermath.

Although the government insists radiation levels are low following an explosion in the main building of the plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, workers wearing white masks and protective clothing used handheld scanners to check everyone arriving for radiation exposure.

"There is radiation leaking out, and since the possibility (of exposure) is high, it's quite scary," said 17-year-old Masanori Ono, queuing at a center in Koriyama city, in Fukushima prefecture.

At least 1,700 people were feared killed by the earthquake, the world's fifth-most powerful in the past century. As many as 3,400 buildings were either destroyed or badly damaged

NEIGHBOURHOODS SWEPT AWAY

In Rikuzentakata, survivors scrambled to retrieve their belongings, at times clambering over uprooted trees to reach leveled homes.

Several neighborhoods of the city were completely swept away by the tsunami and all that remained was a vast wasteland of mud, pieces of wood, and random household goods, along with a few sturdy buildings that withstood the devastation. Japanese media said up to 400 people are missing in one area of Rikuzentakata completely swallowed by the waves.

Cars were flipped, sometimes atop one another. A train station remained standing, its small building filled with mud and wood. A family photo stuck out of the muddy ground near one of many destroyed homes.

About 1,340 people took refuge at local shelter overnight in a school during near-freezing temperatures. Inside, people slept curled up in the cold, covered in blankets. Some sat on chairs around heaters, talking with family and friends.

Worried relatives checked an information board on survivors, some weeping, others crying and huddling in a group.

"I am looking for my parents and my older brother," Yuko Abe, 54, said in tears. "Seeing the way the area is, I thought that perhaps they did not make it....I also cannot tell my siblings that live away that I am safe, as mobile phones and telephones are not working."

About 300,000 people have been evacuated nationwide, including tens of thousands from areas near the nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture.

In Tokyo, where many have long feared another powerful earthquake of the scale that killed about 140,000 people in 1923, many watched seemingly endless televised footage of fires, collapsed buildings and the deadly waves.

"Even in the bar, we kept staring at the news," said Kasumi, a 26-year-old woman meeting a friend for a drink in the central district of Akasaka on Saturday night. "I looked at the tsunami swallowing houses and it seemed like a film."

 

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