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1,700 feared dead, missing; Possible radiation leaks

Saturday March 12, 2011 10:50:08 PM, DPA

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Tokyo: The number of people feared dead or missing after Japan was hit by an earthquake and tsunami could top 1,700, news reports said Saturday, as concern rose over damaged nuclear reactors.

Japan was assessing the devastation a day after the nation's massive 8.9-magnitude quake and devastating tsunami rocked the north-eastern part of the country Friday.

The toll would probably be well over 1,000, said Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary.

"This is the largest earthquake since the Meiji Era, and it is believed that more than 1,000 people have lost their lives," he said.

Authorities had recovered hundreds of bodies, with more than 1,000 people still missing and many injured, news reports said, the authorities warned of further tsunamis and aftershocks. The Meteorological Agency said more than 100 aftershocks had occurred many of them over 6 on the Richter scale.

About 9,500 people were unaccounted for in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, one of the worst-hit areas north-eastern Japan, officials said. The figure is more than half of the population of about 17,000 in the town on the Pacific coast.

Tens of thousands of houses were destroyed, several bridges collapsed, bus and train services were shut down and many roads were closed. Mobile phone networks and landline services were affected.

Television footage showed flattened fishing villages and shattered cities with piles of rubble on the streets as the tsunami surged 5 kilometres inland in some areas. Many people were forced to spend the night on the roofs of schools, hospitals or government buildings, as temperatures dropped to freezing.

In Rikuzen Takata, a coastal town of 23,000 people that was one of the worst-hit areas, about 5,000 of the estimated of the 8,000 homes were submerged, news reports said.

Around 1,800 houses in Minami Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, were destroyed. Flooding and tsunami warnings were preventing relief efforts to reach survivors by road or boat.

Thousands of people were still stranded in the quake-hit region while some 210,000 people were evacuated at 1340 locations in five prefectures.

Though many people in the quake-prone country were used to a big earthquake, large scales of devastation caused by the powerful earthquake and tsunami in tandem shocked the whole nation.

"I had never seen such high tsunami before. I was so scared and we rushed to higher ground," one woman in Rikuzen Takata told a Japanese TV programme.

The government had mobilised 50,000 military and other rescue workers, and sent 190 aircraft and 25 vessels to areas affected by the quake and tsunami, airlifting some victims to safety and evacuating others by lifeboat.

International assistance was on its way, as more than 140 US personnel would arrive Sunday, and New Zealand said Saturday it would send a 48-member search-and-rescue team.

About 900 Japanese troops and 250 vehicles were being transported by ships belonging to US forces stationed in the country.

The government said that an explosion at a nuclear plant damaged by Friday's massive earthquake, had not affected the reactors.

Nor had the explosion at the Fukushima I plant, 240 kilometres north of Tokyo, led to a significant radioactive leak, Edano told a news conference.

The blast caused the roof of a building housing one of the plant's three reactors to collapse, injuring four people and raising fears of a meltdown of the reactor core.

The government extended the evacuation zone to residents living within 20 kilometres of the plant.

Three evacuees from areas near the plant were exposed to radiation, news reports said late Saturday.

Radioactive material had been detected nearby, and radiation inside the plant had been measured at 1,000 times the normal levels, the government's nuclear safety commission said.

The whole country was also facing the risk of blackouts due to damage to the power grid in the affect area, the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) warned.

TEPCO urged businesses and residents across Japan to use electricity sparingly, as the energy supply capacity was reduced.

The company sought support from other energy operators, Kyodo news agency reported.

Officials feared the toll could reach thousands, as the damage was reportedly more widespread than in 1995, when 6,400 people died after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck Kobe in western Japan.







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