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Outrunning the tsunami -- a race for survival

by Staff Writers
Sendai, Japan (AFP) March 14, 2011
Japanese tsunami survivors who were able to outrun the killer waves that raged out of the sea, have recalled how they saw those behind them consumed by the torrent of mud and debris.

Miki Otomo's sister was one of the fortunate, though the image of victims violently swept away last week by the black tide of wrecked houses and cars near the hard-hit city of Sendai will be forever seared in her memory.

"My older sister was in a bus when the wave came behind them. The bus driver told everybody to get out of the bus and run," said Otomo, a mother of three teens who herself managed to escape the deadly wall of water in her car.

"My sister was able to get away but some people just couldn't run fast enough," she said, adding they were engulfed by the swirling tsunami, which was sparked Friday by a massive earthquake, the biggest ever recorded in Japan.

Otomo, whose home near Sendai was destroyed in the twin disasters, says she quickly piled her father and her dog in the car in a desperate bid to survive. She is thankful that her entire family was able to escape the waves.

"The tsunami wave was coming and I grabbed grandfather and our dog and drove. The wave was right behind me, but I had to keep zigzagging around obstacles and the water to get to safety," Otomo told AFP.

Otomo is now living at an evacuation centre in an area school with about 1,000 other exhausted survivors who cheated death. Authorities fear that at least 10,000 people may have lost their lives.

In the gymnasium at the Rokugo junior high school, more than 100 people huddled in blankets on the floor as emergency food supplies were brought in.

Outside in the carpark, a water pump manned by volunteers provides a much-needed source of refreshment, local business owners arrive with crates of supplies, and a neat row of portable toilets has been set up.

At the entrance to the main hall, a neat arrangement of shoes is a testament to tradition, despite the disaster.

The atmosphere is strikingly calm, orderly and determined.

Maki Kobari, an English teacher, said she and her colleagues at the school -- a designated emergency shelter -- raced to help shortly after the tsunami hit.

They spent the first night after the catastrophe in the classrooms with only a few crackers between them, trying to organise some kind of response until officials arrived early Sunday.

But there are no signs now of uniformed personnel -- the centre is manned by teams of volunteers who help distribute supplies. Across the street, people queue calmly with their jerrycans for petrol.

Some people are still too shocked to express the terror of their ordeal, let alone face the uncertainty of their future, Kobari explained.

"Some people lost their whole families, they lost everything," she said.

Apart from a violent fissure in the carpark, there are shockingly few visible signs of the utter devastation less than a mile away, where the once suburban landscape is empty and eerily silent.

Cars were tossed across the muddy wasteland like dice -- one was awkwardly balanced on top of another, while around five vehicles had washed up within the walls of a house compound.

The roof of one house, apparently shorn from the building, lay on the waterlogged ground. A fridge and a sofa also were pitched incongruously in the mud.

Groups of emergency crews in orange jumpsuits picked through the vast fields of rubble. Army trucks and police rescue vehicles drove into the disaster zone, although tsunami warnings pushed them back at least twice on Sunday.

Farmer Yoichi Aizawa, 84, said he had briefly returned to his house to retrieve some of his belongings, but cannot imagine when -- or if -- he will be able to go home again.

"When the earthquake occurred, the house was OK so I thought it was going to be alright," he said.

"But when the waves came, that was unexpected. The wave was the most scary thing."




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SHAKE AND BLOW
10,000 feared dead in Japan's Miyagi: police
Tokyo (AFP) March 13, 2011
The death toll from Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami is certain to exceed 10,000 in Miyagi prefecture alone, its police chief told reporters Sunday. "There is no doubt that the number will reach the 10,000-level," said Naoto Takeuchi, quoted by state broadcaster NHK. He was referring just to his own prefecture, the region hardest hit by Friday's devastating natural disaster. Th ... read more

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