Tsunami-ravaged Japan struggled Sunday to cope with its greatest catastrophe since World War II, confronting an escalating nuclear crisis, a humanitarian nightmare and a death toll certain to soar above 10,000 after an epic 8.9 earthquake shifted the planet on its axis.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, faced with the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl just days after a tsunami washed away whole villages, offered a sobering assessment.
“We’re under scrutiny on whether we, the Japanese people, can overcome this crisis,” he told reporters.
Punishing aftershocks continued, with a 70 percent chance of a 7.0 or higher quake in the next three days. As if to punctuate the sense of apocalypse, a volcano erupted far from the quake site, a possible new sign of seismic turbulence in the “Ring of Fire.”
The nuclear crisis
For a country ravaged by two atomic bombings at the end World War II, the nuclear crisis was a terrifying turn. After the apparent partial meltdown of two nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, authorities were desperately pumping in seawater to avoid greater trouble there amid concerns about reactors elsewhere. Radiation from Fukushima Plant No. 1 again reached above the legal limit as calls went out for the evacuation of 80,000 people. Tablets of potassium iodide were distributed in hopes of warding off thyroid cancer.
Adding to the worries was the detection by U.S. helicopters of radiation 60 miles from Fukushima, the New York Times reported late Sunday, a troubling finding indicative of broader contamination.
Underscoring the sense of the unknown, white-suited nuclear workers waved radiation sensors over young children. France advised all its citizens to leave Tokyo over radiation fears.
While damaging tsunamis hit the U.S. West Coast on Friday, no harmful radiation was expected to reach the Pacific states, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.
The death toll
Authorities said the death toll could well top 10,000 after the worst quake in Japan’s recorded history. One town, Minami Sanriku, is missing more than 10,000 of its 17,000 residents.
In Yamamoto, part of hard-hit Miyagi Prefecture, a mother and father were photographed staring helplessly at their daughter’s corpse — trapped in a crumpled driving-school car. Such scenes of agony were likely to grow more common in the battered northern coast as it was increasingly clear most of the missing were among the dead.
"I would like to believe that there still are survivors," Masaru Kudo, a soldier in Rikuzentakata, told Reuters.
Rescue and recovery
With millions without power or water, 46,000 structures damaged and 500,000 people relocated, 100,000 troops were mobilized in a massive relief effort. Help came in from the United States as well as traditional antagonists such as China.
Amid the horror was news that offered a momentary salve to the nation: A 60-year-old man was rescued 10 miles out to sea after surviving two days atop the floating roof of his home.