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Japanese flee disaster zone as quakes, fires hamper rescue

By Stuart Biggs and Aaron Sheldrick

Bloomberg News

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Hundreds of cars streamed south of Japanese areas devastated by last week's earthquake and tsunami as technicians battled to contain fires and radiation leaks at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station.

In the city of Sendai, near the epicenter of the March 11 temblor that was Japan's strongest on record, vehicles were wrapped four-high in places around the airport's perimeter fence. The top floor of a two-story house dragged from its foundations as the 7-meter (23-foot) wave retreated could be seen in wreckage that was studded with uprooted trees.

In Fukushima city, capital of the prefecture where Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers are struggling to prevent a nuclear meltdown, about 200 people lined up at the Co-op supermarket to buy provisions. The queue at a local gasoline station stretched for more than a kilometer, there was no running water and portable toilets were overflowing.

"People still think this is a dream, and that they're going to pinch themselves and it won't have happened," said Keiji Kakogawa, 34, a social worker who arrived in the area from Kyoto, central Japan, two days ago to search for a female friend living in a nearby town that bore the tsunami's brunt. "A few days ago they were asleep in their homes. Now everything has changed."

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said she wanted to convene Group of Seven talks on the financial response to Japan's earthquake.

Driving South

For the past two days, the road headed south of Fukushima has been clogged with cars. Last night, an unbroken line of vehicles about 40 kilometers long was crawling toward Tokyo. In the capital, supermarkets reported panic buying of household goods and fears of nuclear contamination have prompted some people to leave the city. Four-hundred kilometers southwest of Tokyo in Osaka, some hotels said they were fully booked.

"Right after the quake, we got a lot of cancellations," said Michiko Fujikawa, a spokeswoman for Swissotel Nankai Hotel. "Now we don't have enough rooms."

The hotel will accommodate 120 employees of a European financial company, she said, declining to identify it. The hotel will also set up an office in its banquet room for the company, she said.

SAP AG, the world's biggest business software company, said it has reserved 520 rooms in Osaka and Kobe that employees and their families can use. Austria's ambassador in Japan is leaving Tokyo because of the reactors' "unpredictability" and will work from Osaka, the state-run Austrian Press Agency reported.

U.S. Stays

Unlike the French and Germany embassies, the U.S. hasn't recommended its citizens leave Japan. American Ambassador John Roos said the U.S. isn't recommending evacuation as its experts agree with the Japanese government's response to the crisis.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. is flying two extra flights from Tokyo today due to "rapidly increasing demand from people wishing to return home to Hong Kong and elsewhere," Chief Operating Officer John Slosar said in an e- mailed statement.

Some people at Tokyo Station in the downtown Marunouchi district said they were still worried, even though the government has sought to play down the danger.

"I'm just going to Osaka, to stay at a relatively safer place," said Nodir Shermatou, 23, a student at Chiba University from Uzbekistan who has lived in Japan for 2 years. "Panic is a very contagious thing."

A magnitude 6 aftershock to the east of Sendai shook buildings in Tokyo at 12:52 p.m. local time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. There have been more than 450 aftershocks since the magnitude-9 temblor left hundreds of thousands stranded and without power, with disruptions to food and water supplies. Prime Minister Naoto Kan called for calm as he dispatched 100,000 troops to the northeastern region.

Death Toll

The official death toll at 4 p.m. local time was 3,771 people, with 8,181 missing, the National Police Agency said. The tsunami and fears of a meltdown plant forced 451,059 people from their homes.

Japanese Emperor Akihito expressed condolences to the victims of the earthquake and gratitude to the rescuers.

"By mustering all or our strength for a swift rescue effort, I can only wish for even the smallest improvement in the situation of the victims, to provide hope for restoration," he said.

Tepco said it is building a power line to the Dai-Ichi nuclear plant's cooling systems, which were knocked out by the quake. The company aims to restore the systems today, the Yomiuri newspaper reported. The failure of backup generators caused explosions in at least three of the station's reactors, as well as a fire in a pond containing spent fuel rods.

"We are making a maximum effort to ensure that" a worst- case scenario doesn't occur, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said today.

Eleven of Japan's 54 reactors have been operating for 35 years or more. Two of those rank among the 10 oldest operating units in the world, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Stocks Rebound

Japanese stocks rebounded as investors bet that yesterday's 9.5 percent drop, the biggest decline in 2 years, was excessive. The Topix index closed 6.6 percent higher at 3 p.m. today. Plywood-maker Kanematsu-NNK Corp. jumped 38 percent. Nissei Build Co., a maker of prefabricated buildings, surged 33 percent. Ceramic tableware maker Noritake Co. rose 29 percent.

Japan has distributed 230,000 units of iodide to evacuation centers area around the nuclear plants, according to officials. The ingestion of iodide can help to prevent the accumulation of radioactive iodine in the thyroid.

"The Japanese government are saying 'it's safe, it's safe' but you've got the overseas media saying that there's a very real nuclear threat here," said Julian Litt, 38, a New Zealander who has lived in Japan for 15 years.

In Sendai, the psychiatric wards at the 1,308-bed Tohoku University Hospital are full as people seek treatment for anxiety and other mental problems, Katsutoshi Furukawa, a brain surgeon, said by telephone. Supplies of sedatives are "limited, so we are prescribing the minimum amount" before sending them home, he said.

U.S. Military

The first U.S. military transport aircraft, a C-130 Hercules, landed in strong and freezing crosswinds at the city's recently cleared runway to aid efforts to clear debris and search for bodies. A car was wrapped around the metal "welcome" sign, while some windows in the second floor of the three-story building are shattered.

The U.S. military is sending more supplies to quake-hit areas in Japan, Air Force Master Sergeant Jeremiah Coomer said in an interview near the airport.

"We are here to give as much assistance as possible and to do anything that we can," Coomer said from the wheel of a Humvee that arrived on board the C-130 Hercules.

Aside from aid workers and military personnel, there were few people around the airport. Busloads of mostly elderly people who had been sheltering at the site were being driven home or to evacuation shelters.

One man, identifying himself as Nakagawa, said his family had survived but his house in a village 8 kilometers away was destroyed.

Cesar Eduardo, a Peruvian factory worker, said the wave had stopped about 500 meters from his house in the village of Natori Hongo several kilometers inland. His wife, who works for Japan Airlines Corp., survived by taking refuge on the third floor of the airport building, he said.






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