18 Mar 2011

Cold deepens plight in Japan

10:57 pm on 18 March 2011

The plight of hundreds of thousands left homeless by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan has worsened, following a cold snap that brought heavy snow to worst-affected areas.

The official number of dead and missing from the 11 March disasters has topped 16,600, with 6,539 confirmed dead.

The National Police Agency says the number of people unaccounted for has increased to 10,259. A total of 2,409 people were injured.

The United Nations says the blizzard has deepened the emergency and is complicating relief efforts already hampered by aftershocks.

Half a million homeless

Thick snow covers the wreckage littering destroyed towns and villages, all but extinguishing hopes of finding anyone alive in the debris.

Half a million people have no homes, and are struggling to stay warm.

The United Nations says its concerns are for those who have still not been reached by rescue workers as well as those now living in evacuation centres.

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

Power companies say about 850,000 households in the north are still without electricity in near-freezing weather, and the government says at least 1.5 million households lack running water.

A Red Cross doctor in Otsuchi, a low-lying town where more than half the 17,000 residents are still missing, says many people have fallen ill, with diarrhoea and other symptoms.

Already labouring under sweeping power, gas and water shortages and with limited communication, the northeast faces the possibility of being cut off from supply links because of snow and ice on the roads.

Some rescue teams are pulling back, fearing they would be unable to get back to their bases.

Rescuers say they are also worried about the weight of snow on buildings that are already compromised because of the quake and tsunami.

NZ team works on

The New Zealand urban search and rescue team says it is using machinery and ladders to get into difficult places, as it searches for bodies and survivors.

The team is working in the Miyagi prefecture in northern Japan.

Team leader Jim Stuart-Black says they have been making steady progress in temperatures plunging to minus 12 degrees overnight, with 5 cm snowfalls.

He says they started 700 metres up an estuary leading to a coastal area and are using machinery to climb into precariously perched buildings.

Mr Stuart-Black says bodies have been found, but no survivors.

Toll likely to be much higher

The death toll has increased steadily in recent days, and reports suggest it could eventually be much higher.

The mayor of the coastal town of Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture says the number of missing there is likely to hit 10,000, Kyodo News reported.

On Saturday, public broadcaster NHK reported about 10,000 people were unaccounted for in the port town of Minamisanriku in the same prefecture.

Amid a mass rescue effort there were grim updates indicating severe loss of life along the battered east coast of Honshu island, where the monster waves destroyed or damaged more than 55,380 homes and other buildings.