Fuel shortage threatens to slow rescuers

Workers hurry to load cargo trucks with supplies bound for evacuation sites throughout the area at the Sendai Prefectural Headquarters Building, in Sendai City.


By CHARLIE REED | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 16, 2011

SENDAI, Japan — More than 4,000 tsunami survivors were still stranded along the pulverized coastline east of here Wednesday, and the region’s dwindling supply of gasoline began threatening rescue efforts and fueling a new sense of panic in the city.

Five days after Friday’s massive earthquake and resulting tsunami, fuel trucks are still unable to enter Miyagi prefecture — the epicenter of the destruction — for lack of a passable routes into the area, government officials said.

“Our refineries are destroyed, 100 of our trucks are covered in water and some of our drivers are dead,” said Hideaki Sasaki, who manages the Sendai branch for the Fuji Koyu gasoline company.

Given priority over motorists lined up en masse at the few open gas stations, emergency vehicles were initially able to zip in and out to refuel, but are starting to form lines themselves.

Officials could not predict how long they could sustain rescue and relief efforts without fuel, just as the first major distribution of supplies got under way Wednesday afternoon.

Marines from Okinawa on Tuesday arrived in Yamagata, 20 miles to the west, with two cargo planes full of equipment to establish an air refueling point for rescue operations.

“It’s a very serious problem,” said Toshiaki Sugawara, as he and other government workers loaded tons of food, water and medicine onto trucks from the prefecture’s headquarters building in Sendai. They were bound for area evacuation centers, where some 240,000 people were living, down 75,000 from Tuesday.

“If this goes on, it will be chaos,” said Akira Mito, whose Tokyo-based construction company had voluntarily sent him and other employees from around Japan to Sendai with trucks of supplies to assist relief efforts.

Mito said he was happy to be helping but was concerned with how he and the other Kajima Corporation employees would get home.

“I’m worried,” he said, as his team scrambled to load trucks and begin deliveries.

People continued pouring out of Sendai on Wednesday by car and bus bound for Yamagata. Some were trying to catch flights from there to other parts of Japan or out of the country completely, fearing nuclear fallout from the worsening crisis in Fukushima, 60 miles to the south.

“I think we’re all getting very panicky,” said Sendai resident Jacqui Laing, a native of Melbourne, Australia. “Everyone’s looking for ways out.”

She had not yet made the decision to leave but was uneasy about the prospect.

Like many caught up in the rumors and contradictory information about the dangers posed by the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Liang seemed paralyzed by the decision to stay or go.

“I’m not sure what to do,” said the 26-year-old English teacher. She and a group of ex-pat friends established an impromptu phone tree over the past few days to alert one another about the availability of food and other supplies, which are still being rationed at many restaurants, grocery stores and other shops.

A local psychiatrist, who stopped for a bowl of curry rice after yet another long shift, said he was too busy to panic. The physician, who typically works at a small clinic, has been filling in at an area hospital for doctors sent to treat victims requiring urgent care on the front lines of the tsunami ravaged coast.

The man, who asked to remain anonymous, said medicine was in short supply.

Patients leaving the hospital were only receiving one week’s worth of prescription medicine, he said.

Even when relief efforts eventually subside, the psychiatrist doesn’t expect to slow down considering the mental health care many survivors and rescuers will likely require after the apocalyptic scenes of death and destruction left in the aftermath of the largest natural disaster ever to hit Japan.

“I’m going to be very busy in the future,” he said.


The Japanese flag and the Sendai Prefecture fly at half staff at Sendai City Hall on March 16, 2011.