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Quake’s Human Toll Shakes Confidence Amid Rising Death Rate, Thousands Of Homeless Japanese Grow Critical Of Government Inaction

Amid growing criticism of government inaction in the wake of the disaster, tens of thousands of homeless earthquake victims fled this stricken city after a freezing night in shelters without heat, food or water.

The death toll from the quake continued to mount. As of mid-morning today (local time), the National Police Agency reported 3,156 dead, 879 missing and 16,007 injured.

The plight of the quake victims has prompted a national outpouring of criticism at slow government relief efforts. The human suffering and massive damage has also shaken the confidence of a country that thought standards set by its engineers and bureaucrats had steeled the region for just this kind of disaster.

Yoshifumi and Hiroko Kawakami and their two children, wrapped in scarves and blankets to ward off the biting cold, carried only what they could cram into tiny backpacks and a single handheld valise.

“We had very little food because their was no public supply,” said Yoshifumi Kawakami, 41, an engineer. “A local rice shop provided one meal last night and this morning, some company supplied us a little soup. The government has done nothing … Do you know oyakusho shigoto?”

It means bureaucracy and is a phrase usually uttered only in reverential tones. But Japan’s fabled bureaucracy is coming in for its share of criticism in the wake of the earthquake.

Despite annual drills to prepare for such an emergency, it took nearly 24 hours for the first relief supplies and emergency personnel to reach the earthquake zone. Inadequately stocked schools and public buildings that had been designated as shelters for emergencies were overwhelmed by the demands for food and blankets.

By late afternoon Wednesday, relief forces managed to set up a handful of stations to provide water and food. People clutching buckets, plastic containers and baskets stood in long lines to get the precious supplies.

Desperate people facing the prospect of another night in the shelters began walking toward the nearest operating train station, nearly 10 miles from the center of the city, with their belongings in carts or strapped to their backs.

Local officials seemed stunned by the magnitude of the disaster.

“We never thought about earthquakes as a reality,” said Kobe Mayor Yukitoshi Sasayama. “We thought we were constructing buildings and infrastructure in the city which could sustain an earthquake.”

At least three new fires broke out Wednesday night, sending plumes of dense white smoke spiraling over the city and adding to the general gloom. The faint odor of leaking natural gas could be detected in several sections of the city.

Government relief forces finally began arriving early Wednesday morning. About 16,000 troops from the Japan Self Defense Force have been dispatched to the city.

According to top SDF officials, they didn’t get the request for troops until five hours after the earthquake hit. Though an order went out almost immediately, it took another 18 hours for the first troops to arrive by helicopter. Television commentators have pounced on the slow response.

The first platoons began a desperate search through the rubble in hopes of finding alive some of the hundreds of missing people. At one site, where at least four people were believed buried, a platoon gave up the search after several hours.

“We just got orders to move to another site,” said Capt. Kosei Kawashiri. Two bodies had been recovered. “They think someone may be alive over there.”

The half-mile long stretch of overhead highway that toppled to the ground has become the symbol of the false promise of the bureaucrats and engineers.

Only a year ago, after Japanese television beamed incessant images of highways that collapsed in the southern California earthquake, Japanese officials had confidently assured the public that a similar collapse couldn’t happen here.

“We will investigate the design of the highways,” said Hidekazu Kanezawa, a Construction Ministry official. “We are still investigating the cause of the collapse.”

One U.S. earthquake expert who now is in Japan said the severe damage indicated officials here have been living in a dream world. “Ordinary people have been sneering at the level (of preparation) in the U.S., but things are roughly comparable,” said Robert Geller, a visiting professor of geophysics at Tokyo University.

There are at least 190,000 homeless in the most heavily affected cities, where nearly 20,000 buildings were destroyed.

About 80,000 people early Wednesday were ordered to evacuate when a Mitsubishi Corp. tank in the Kobe area began leaking liquified petroleum. By evening, the company said people could begin returning, although it is unlikely many will since there are not utilities in the area.

Transportation in the area remains disrupted, although Bullet Train service between Kyoto and Osaka will resume Saturday, according to the Central Japan Railway Company. Utility officials said it will be more than a month before service is restored to much of the stricken area.

It was the most deadly quake to hit Japan since June 28, 1948 when a temblor in Fukui prefecture near the Japan Sea in western Japan killed 3,769 people. The worst earthquake in Japanese history hit Tokyo on September 1, 1923. It killed more than 140,000 people.

Most of the 152 fires that erupted after Tuesday’s earthquake have been extinguished. Emma Lovatt, a 23-year-old British employee of an overseas trading company in Kobe, said she was asleep in her seventh floor apartment when the quake hit.

She ran screaming into the street, a neighborhood made up of mostly old, traditional wooden homes. “They were gone, just gone,” she said. Several had started on fire. “I spent the entire day walking around in my nightgown.”

Noriko Omura, a 30-year-old office worker, said she had been ordered out of her apartment because of leaking gas. She carried an oversized duffel bag on her shoulder as she headed to her parents home south of Osaka.

“There is no food, no water. We haven’t seen anybody. The government has been very slow,” she said.