The second his mother takes her eyes off him, the 3-year-old boy darts across the room, a gymnasium near city hall that serves as a temporary home to about 500 newly homeless Japanese. He weaves around the older evacuees and leaps over small stacks of blankets. Yurie Tanaka quickly gives chase, smiling the entire way.

In a sense, Tanaka figures, little Somo and his 2-year-old sister, Mao, saved her life. Tanaka had walked out the door Friday just a few minutes before the tsunami washed over her home town of Minamisoma, about 25 miles south of Soma and among the areas hit hardest by last week’s natural disasters.

“If I hadn’t gone to pick them up from preschool, I would have been swallowed whole by waves,” said Tanaka, 25.

That relief has carried her through the days that followed. But for Tanaka and thousands of other victims of the devastating earthquake and tsunami, processing all that has happened has not been easy. And with regular aftershocks shaking the nation and the looming threat of problems related to Japan’s unstable nuclear power plants, fear is still the overwhelming emotion for many.

Tanaka was able to return to Minamisoma over the weekend to check on her home. Seven people lived there, including the parents and grandparents of her husband, a fisherman. The house had been in his family for 40 years and, as happened to many home owners in the city of about 75,000 people, it had vanished.

“It was like nothing was ever there,” she said. “I couldn’t cry. The shock was too big. I didn’t know how to react.”

The aftermath

The people in Soma’s largest shelter don’t bat an eye when a strong aftershock shakes the building. But when the intercom starts blaring, they listen intently. The announcements rarely bring good news. One on Monday afternoon invited anyone interested in surveying bodies, so they could identify any family members, to report to the front of the building and board a bus.

Although more than three days have passed since the 9.0-magnitude quake, the threat of danger is ever present.

 Shinobu Inada, 55, was watching television at home Monday morning when the government issued a tsunami warning and ordered an evacuation. Inada grabbed only her wallet and cellphone and drove her white Honda away from the coast.

She parked alongside highway 115, a winding mountain road that connects Soma with Fukushima, waiting for the threat to pass.

“You just get used to it,” she said. “It has always been, ‘In the next 30 years, there will be a big earthquake off the coast.’ So, in one sense, we have always had fear.”

Because of the severity of the earthquake, the people parked on either side of the road along with her did not know when or whether they would return to the homes they had just abandoned.

“So we grabbed everything we could,” said Satoshi Murata, standing behind his Nissan hatchback.

“But I’ve forgotten a lot of things,” said his wife, Noriko, noting that a wallet with all their credit cards had been left behind.

Among the things they remembered to carry: changes of clothes, five packs of tissues, 50 pairs of chopsticks and a few apples.

To compound matters, within minutes of the tsunami warning, radio reports began to discuss a blast at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, about 45 miles away. The announcer urged people to turn off their air conditioners, roll up car windows and remain indoors, if possible.

The tsunami warning was soon lifted, but the threat of complications from the nation’s unstable nuclear power plants remains.

Few answers for future

Rumors and speculation spread rapidly, and numbers and details change constantly. There are few definitive answers. Most of the people in the shelters and throughout the region have no idea what tomorrow will bring, let alone next week or next month.

There is no routine, and life has become a series of distractions. People pass the time by playing cards, reading newspapers and waiting.

Shigeo Kikuchi read the sports page of a newspaper, his big, blue rubber boots not far away. Kikuchi, 47, lived and worked on Matsukawa-ura Bay on the eastern edge of Soma.

His home was on the beach, and he made a living processing seaweed from a cove that extended from his property. With no wife and no children, that home and that job were his life.

“It’s gone,” he said. “It is hopeless.”

The damage is too severe to return, Kikuchi said. Seaweed season ends in a couple of weeks, and the water is too dirty to yield any profits. He doesn’t know what he will do for a paycheck or where he will live.

“I guess I have to look for work somewhere,” he said. “I don’t know where, and I don’t know when.”