Japan tsunami: Scenes from a shelter

YAMAGATA, Japan — The snow was already falling when the first nuclear evacuees from the area around Fukushima No.1 power plant began to arrive at the Ochiai Sports Center in Yamagata City, which has been turned into a temporary shelter here in northeastern Japan.

While all were fleeing the potential danger from a further deterioration of the situation at the nuclear power plant approximately 200 miles away, some had also lost their homes, swept away by the tsunami.

Eight members of the extended Okuyama family still had a home standing in Fukushima Prefecture, but had no idea when they would be able to return to it. Wakako Okuyama says she is also mistrustful of the official pronouncements.

“We know people who work at the plant and they said from the start that it was going to overheat when the government and TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.) were still saying it was OK,” said Okuyama, sitting on a sheet on the floor of the main hall of the sports center with her two sons, aged two and five. “Thinking about the future for my children is what weighs heaviest on my mind. Although our house is OK I don't know when or whether the area around our house will be habitable again.”

Nevertheless, having been screened for radiation on her arrival at the center, and with her family safe, sheltered and in good spirits, Okuyama says she that for now she is simply relieved to be warm and with her children.

Another recent arrival at the center, Chie Konno, said her home was destroyed by the tsunami and she saw her neighbors swept away by it.

“I was able to get my son and get back to my home and collect some valuables after the tsunami warning. We all escaped but some of our neighbors didn't make it. They were trying to escape in their car but the tsunami caught them,” said Konno.

"Right now, I can't even think about whether or not I'll rebuild my home back in that area. My head is completely full of all other things that have happened."

The director of the emergency shelter, Minoru Harada of the Yamagata City local government, is concerned whether enough supplies will get through for the 1,000 evacuees they are expecting.

“We are doing all we can but we don't know if we can provide enough food for everyone with the distribution system so badly affected by the lack of fuel,” said Harada.

There are still 265,000 evacuees at 2,200 centers across the region, and many thousands more yet to reach them, many without adequate shelter, heat, food or water, one week after the quake. With the damage to roads and disruption to supply lines further exacerbated by fuel shortages, some vulnerable survivors of the tsunami such as the elderly, may not survive its aftermath.

At some care homes for the elderly, where residents were too infirm to be evacuated, staff who remained there have telephoned and faxed TV stations directly with desperate pleas for food, water and vital medicine. One facility told a TV news program that if help didn't arrive by Saturday morning, they expected some of the residents to die.

The focus of the world's media has now largely shifted to events at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant, with some predicting an apocalyptic meltdown. A sizable minority of Tokyo's foreign residents have panicked and left Japan.

However, this week members of staff at the Italian Embassy in Tokyo measured radiation levels on the roof of their building with a Geiger counter. They found the levels to be lower than those normally recorded in Rome.

The hardships of those struggling in Japan's freezing northeast region meanwhile, need no exaggeration.