SENDAI, Japan — First they endured the earthquake. Then they scrambled to escape the tsunami.
Now the stricken survivors of the Sendai region are faced with trying to avoid yet another plague — potential radiation from the exploding Fukushima nuclear complex an hour to the south.
On Tuesday, as rescuers at ground zero of last week’s unprecedented natural disaster continued pulling thousands of victims from the twisted wreckage and crumbled buildings near the coast, fears of possible radiation exposure were driving displaced survivors to start moving further north.
A scrolling electronic sign at a local fire department read: “Stay calm. Let’s help each other.”
But Muniqui Muhammad, a native of Phoenix who lives in Sendai, was hastily boarding a bus to get out of town.
He said he and his girlfriend had decided to try to get out of Japan after hearing news that the situation at the failing nuclear plant was worsening.
Thousands lined up alongside them in front of the Miyagi prefectural headquarters building, hoping to get seats on the buses headed to Yamagata, about 20 miles to the west.
“That’s the only place to go for now,” said Muhammad, 40, an English teacher who has called Japan home for 13 years. “From there hopefully we can get to the airport in Osaka or Akita and get out of Japan.”
Like many others interviewed, Muhammad said he did not trust official Japanese government reports that the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, 65 miles to the south, posed no serious health risks, especially after he watched officials on TV discuss radiation levels in terms of “legal limits.”
“That’s a risk I’m not willing to take,” he said.
Sendai resident Cheri Firth said she believes the government is withholding information to prevent mass panic.
“It’s hard to tell if [withholding information] is justified,” said Firth, 43, a native of Australia who also teaches English in Sendai. She was also leaving for Yamagata after learning that her government had warned its citizens to get out of Miyagi.
As she hurried home to pack a bag, Firth noted the bizarre scenes in Sendai, where some people shopped and pressed on to work in a business-as-usual fashion amid a stream of emergency vehicles and helicopters transporting injured tsunami victims to several area hospitals.
“It’s strange,” she said. “Sometimes it looks like it’s getting better, and sometimes it seems worse.”
More than 88,000 tsunami survivors entered evacuation centers in Miyagi Prefecture on Monday night alone, according to a tally posted Tuesday morning at the prefecture’s headquarters building in Sendai. And despite news reports that upwards of 10,000 were feared dead in the region, official statistics reported only 748 had been killed by the earthquake and flood. Officials say they expect the grim tally will grow in the days ahead as more bodies are recovered.
Other survivors said they were staying put for now.
Shoji Saito, who narrowly escaped death in the tsunami and is now staying in a evacuation shelter, said he was just happy to be alive.
Saito, 63, who is from Saitama, was visiting a friend near the Sendai port city of Tagajo last Friday.
He and his wife were driving in their car when the quake struck and the floodwaters started to rise shortly afterward. The couple saw a man driving in front of them get out of his car after the quake, but Saito said he and his wife decided to stay in their vehicle.
Soon the waves were carrying their car about a half-mile through the city. Saito said he saw people trying to grab hold of his car, begging for help.
“I wanted to help them, but I couldn’t,” he said.
The car was quickly filling with water, and the couple had only a small bit of air left, he said.
They tried unsuccessfully to break a window to get out, and had all but given up hope when another car smashed into them, breaking a window and allowing them to escape, he said.
Despite water up to their necks, they were able to get to safety, he said. Soaking wet, in falling snow, they wandered for more than two hours in search of shelter, Saito said. Finally, they heard a voice calling them from the second floor of a building.
Saito said he and his wife stayed there until they ran out of food and water. They moved to an evacuation center Sunday.
On Monday, there were 700 such shelters in the city. On Tuesday, there were 1,300.
At this point, Saito said, he is fatalistic about the potential radiation threat.
“I’m very worried about the radiation,” he said, “but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The scene outside the prefectural headquarters building was frenetic. While people outside were hurrying to board evacuation buses, officials inside the government buildings worked feverishly to coordinate delivery of the first shipment of emergency supplies to reach Miyagi.
Public buses and subways were operating with limited service though there was no shortage of taxi cabs, which buzzed the city streets and roamed the outskirts of the tsunami-ravaged villages near the coast.
Much of the city seemed to have power, though running water was still in short supply, prompting people to keep buckets of water near toilets to help prevent sewage from backing up. Many restaurants and grocery stores in the city center and further out of town were open but were rationing food, the lines for which were significantly shorter than the hours-long wait to buy gasoline.
Ono Sadao seemed to brush off the chaos all around him. He said he was concerned about radiation exposure but was not going to leave town or his hotel, which he had opened up to rescue workers.
“I’m going to try and stay inside as much as possible,” he said.