By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 11:00 PM
TOKYO - Rescue teams searched Saturday for thousands of missing people along hundreds of miles of Japan's northeastern coast a day after a powerful earthquake and massive tsunami wiped entire towns off the map.
With much of its northeastern coastline already under water and reduced to matchstick wreckage, Japan also faced the nightmare of potential nuclear disaster after an explosion at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture prompted evacuations within a 12-mile radius.
As powerful aftershocks continued to rock Japan's main island of Honshu on Saturday - including temblors of 6.4 and 6.0 magnitude - teams of rescue workers scoured the Pacific coastline for survivors. Thousands of hungry people were huddling in emergency shelters without water or electricity, and large parts of the countryside were unreachable because of flooding and damage, news agencies reported.
While the rescue teams broadened their search along the devastated coast, in many places they found only remnants.
Officials said late Saturday that 686 people were confirmed dead in the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and huge tsunami waves. But thousands of others were missing, and the death toll was certain to rise.
Roughly 9,500 people in Minamisanriku - a town of 17,000 in Miyagi Prefecture - remain unaccounted for, the Kyodo news agency reported, citing local government officials.
In the areas north of Tokyo, closest to the epicenter of Friday's earthquake, eyewitnesses described entire neighborhoods that have disappeared after being swallowed and chewed up by a massive tsunami wave. Attempts to reach those stranded, trapped or short on supplies were complicated by damage to the roads and rail lines.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported dozens of additional aftershocks off the coast of Honshu Island. Just after 10 p.m. local time, a 6.4 magnitude aftershock hit 50 miles away from Fukushima Prefecture, shaking buildings as far away as Tokyo.
The power of Friday's 8.9 earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in quake-prone Japan, prompted evacuations as far away as the U.S. West Coast and South America for fear of a devastating tsunami. Damage to some harbors and boats in California was reported, and at least one person was swept out to sea and feared drowned. But the impact was relatively minor.
In Chile, where scientists said the thrust of the tsunami crossing the Pacific was headed, authorities canceled tsunami warnings Saturday after closing ports and evacuating 700,000 people from coastal communities. As on the U.S. West Coast, the damage was far lighter than feared.
In Japan, given the continued communication problems with towns in the north and scant initial information about the implications of the nuclear plant explosion, people were trying at once to piece together what had happened and what was happening still.
Japanese government officials said Saturday evening that the explosion did not damage the nuclear containment vessel at the Fukushima Daiichi plant's Unit 1 reactor, and they conveyed an initial sense that a widespread radioactive leak could be avoided.
But local officials said at least three patients at a hospital less than two miles from the damaged nuclear plant have been exposed to radiation, Japanese news media reported. The three were chosen for random radiation testing from 90 patients and staff who were awaiting evacuation by helicopter. Officials said the three needed to be decontaminated although they have not yet shown physical symptoms of radiation poisoning.
The Tokyo Electric Power Co. reported that a worker at the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant, a sister station about seven miles south of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, died of his injuries after he became trapped in the crane operating console of the exhaust stack following Friday's earthquake. The company said at least six other workers were injured and two were missing at the two plants as a result of the quake or Saturday's explosion.
As nuclear workers scrambled to bring temperatures at the reactor to safe levels by filling the Unit 1 container with sea water, authorities were preparing to distribute potassium iodide tablets to help protect against thyroid cancer from radiation exposure, officials said.
For several hours Saturday afternoon, those in Tokyo saw only the images played on a loop by national television broadcasters. Smoke billowed from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and government officials warned those in the area to stay indoors - or cover their mouths with wet cloths when walking outside. Even in Tokyo, frightened consumers rushed stores, stocking up on water and food.
Meanwhile, attempts to map out the damage caused a day earlier were only beginning as Japan dispatched 50,000 troops to the disaster zone. The coastal town of Rikuzentakata, in Iwate Prefecture, was entirely submerged by water, according to local authorities. One TV reporter arrived at Iwaki, in Fukushima Prefecture, and reported that the entire town was gone. A hospital in Iwanuma had written "SOS" - in English - on the roof. A derailed train in Miyagi Prefecture, closest to the quake's epicenter, was seen waylaid against the side of a house. There were no reports on the whereabouts of passengers.
With roads pretzeled and fuel in high demand along the undamaged routes heading north, the government will depend on ships and aircraft for the rescue work. Japan is sending 195 aircraft and 25 vessels to the disaster area, according to Kyodo. U.S. ships will join them for search-and-rescue missions.
Japanese power companies warned of severe outages in the upcoming days, with energy sources in diminished supply.
On Saturday, Japan's northeastern coastline, viewed from above, had the look of a dark scar. The fiercest tsunami had sent a wall of water upwards of 20 feet high toward the shoreline, and the wave spread some six miles inland. At 6 a.m. local time, Prime Minister Naoto Kan surveyed the area by helicopter. Those on ground level told of screams from trapped survivors, houses turned to splinters and overtaxed hospitals and shelters.
In the Miyagino ward of Sendai city - the hardest-hit population center - officials set up 31 evacuation sites. They filled up with 23,000 people. This was near the area where, one day earlier, several hundred bodies had been found on the beach.
"Supplies are coming in bit by bit, but we still don't have enough," said Hideya Yusa in the Miyago ward office. "Initially we needed more blankets, which we still don't have enough of. So far we have distributed dried crackers, water and rice, but it wasn't enough to go around for everyone."
Some areas, such as Otsuchi town and Sumita town in Iwate Prefecture, sustained such serious damage that nobody has yet been able to get in touch with town officials. In Rikuzen Takata city, one of the worst-hit areas, some 5,000 of the town's 8,000 homes were destroyed.
Amid earlier concerns of a nuclear meltdown at one of the Fukushima plants, operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Co., about 40,000 residents were urged to evacuate - just one of many forced migrations across the coast. Tamura city, in Fukushima Prefecture, was asked to receive residents from Okuma town, near the nuclear power plant.
"People are calm," Tamura official Densaku Nemoto said. "But we are sending public health nurses to evacuation centers to take care of the mental aspects of the evacuees. For now, volunteers are bringing in blankets and food. And we are asking the prefecture to further provide us with more food and blankets."
Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.