17 Mar 2011

Quake survivors battle elements in Japan

8:00 pm on 17 March 2011

Tens of thousands of survivors of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan's north-east are now enduring snow and freezing temperatures.

Half a million people are homeless after the tsunami swept away entire towns last week.

There are shortages of food and fuel but officials say basic supplies are beginning to reach the worst-hit areas.

The official number of dead and missing has passed 13,000. Police say the number of confirmed dead is now 5,178 and the number of missing is more than 8,600. Reports are coming in, however, that suggest the final toll will be much higher.

In a sign of the enormous crisis, the emperor has made a rare television address to try to reassure his people.

Emperor Akihito urged an all-out rescue effort, saying he was praying for Japan, and "the safety of as many people as possible".

Aid agencies face tough job

The head of World Vision in Japan says the logistics of reaching the people most affected is difficult. Casey Calamusa says that after speaking to authorities the agency has decided to focus its attention on Tomay city north of Sendai, which was severely affected but has not received much aid yet.

He says World Vision is sending blankets, water and hygiene kits for about 6000 people as an initial response, but the recovery process will take years.

Supplies of water and heating oil are low at evacuation centres, where many survivors wait bundled in blankets.

Those still in their own homes are not exempt from hardship. A power company says nearly a million households in the north are still without electricity, and the Government says at least 1.5 million households lack running water.

A spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs says aid agencies are finding it difficult to reach many victims.

NZ team to stay on

Prime Minister John Key says New Zealand search and rescue workers will stay in Japan as long as they are safe, and as long as their specialist skills are needed.

Two New Zealanders assisting efforts in Japan have been exposed to low levels of radiation.

A helicopter carrying them and four Australians developed a problem and was forced to land close to the exclusion zone around the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.

While being driven back to base, four of the group were exposed to low-level radiation contamination but have been cleared of any health risk.

Mr Key says the New Zealand search and rescue specialists will stay in Japan until the operation moves into the recovery stage, or it becomes unsafe.