March 19, 2011 in Nation/World

Frustration, anger rise over lack of basic aid

Mark Magnier Los Angeles Times
 
Associated Press photo

Survivors go for relief goods amid the rubble in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture, northeastern Japan, on Friday, one week after a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

KESENNUMA, Japan – There may be radioactive particles wafting out of the sky, but Masahiro Hamaguchi has a more pedestrian concern about the air around him: the dribble of cold, wet snow.

A week after the deadly earthquake and even deadlier tsunami that have devastated Japan, newly homeless huddle hungry and cold in emergency shelters. And people are wondering where, exactly, their government is.

“I need something, anything, to warm my body,” said Hamaguchi, 58, a burly man trying to stay warm under a thin red raincoat. “I have no winter clothing. It was all destroyed.”

The only clothes Hamaguchi found in his home overlooking battered Kesennuma Bay were some wet underwear. He stuffed them into a plastic bag that he strapped to his back with a red-and-navy striped necktie, a reminder of his job as a municipal bureaucrat, held until his world imploded a week ago.

“I can’t worry about a cloud of radiation 120 miles away because the destruction is so big here,” he said, noting the lack of food, clothing, electricity, heat and telephone service.

Most victims have endured their privations with stoicism, but anger is rising over the lack of basic services. For Hamaguchi and others, this is looking familiar. After a major quake in Kobe in 1995, organized crime groups were handing out blankets and food within hours; the government dithered for days. Afterwards, officials pledged to speed up decision-making and marshaling of resources to stricken areas in times of crisis.

“The Japanese government should have learned from the Kobe earthquake that they would need help, but they didn’t,” Hamaguchi said.

Aware of the political sensitivity, the government’s senior spokesman told Japanese to be patient, and asked the rest of the nation to accept sacrifices.

“It could take a very long time to restore things in the disaster area to the way they were before,” said Yukio Edano, Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, urging people in Tokyo and elsewhere to reduce their electricity consumption so more is available in the quake area.

There were some signs of improvement Friday. Farther north along the coast in Miyako, a single lane had been plowed through most debris fields, and food and fuel were starting to arrive in the shelters just as numbers peaked and more of the displaced drifted home. Kiyohiko Sasaki, a city official, said the number of people at a shelter set up in a junior high school had dropped from 100 to 60, and that some kerosene had arrived to help heat against the bitter cold.

But the community benefited from its geographical position, which made its power, water and road links somewhat less vulnerable to tsunami damage.

At the makeshift disaster center in Kesennuma, it was another day of frustration. Kimio Onodera ran his finger over computer printouts on a bulletin board of those housed at evacuation shelters, a shorter list of the known dead and a third series of handwritten messages.

The 45-year-old teacher said his family was safe. But his best friend’s parents were missing. With a gasoline shortage, his professor friend couldn’t travel the 150 miles to the region himself. So he asked Onodera to search for him, which he had been doing unsuccessfully for three days.

Onodera ticks off the shortages: fuel, water, phone service, electricity, kerosene, food.

“It’s been a week, and there’s still been no government help,” he said. “This is the best they can come up with? What the hell are they doing?

“My biggest anger is when government workers arrive in suits,” he added. “I’m a mess; look how we’re dressed. They’re not thinking, they’re not clever.”

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