Japan tsunami: Snow adds to difficulties for NZ rescue team

By Elizabeth Binning

Members of New Zealand's Urban Search and Rescue team are working in near-freezing conditions in a small Japanese town that was all but obliterated by the earthquake and tsunami.

The team of 48 is helping to search through snow-covered piles of debris for any sign of survivors in the coastal area of Shizugawa, a once-thriving fishing town on the northeastern coast near the devastated coastal resort of Minamisanriku.

Team leader Jim Stuart-Black told the Herald the town's 500 homes had been reduced to a handful - the only sign of the rest is the lengths of timber that scatter the coastline.

"It's truly a completely and utterly devastated area. I think originally there were something around 500 houses," Mr Stuart-Black said.

"You've probably got a dozen or so buildings that are left ... the rest of it is just layer upon layer of debris, mangled vehicles and boats and stripped-out forestry."

He said there were areas where the water had reached as high as 32m, possibly from waves rolling over the top of other buildings after the initial tsunami had already hit the town.

Because most of the homes were timber, with brick or block bases, there was now a huge amount of timber all over the ground. Much of it had gathered in huge stacks along the beach, with cars in amongst it. In the few buildings still standing, windows and walls were blown out and debris littered the floors, he said.

"It's every bit as devastating as media images have shown - it's like that, but worse."

The New Zealand team is working alongside Japanese civil defence workers and an Australian USAR team. While their task is officially a "search and rescue", they have not found anyone alive and Mr Stuart-Black says it is unlikely they will. Instead, they have been recovering bodies in near-freezing conditions.

The team members, who are sleeping in tents, woke yesterday morning to a temperature of minus 12C. It had reached only about 1C by midday.

"We had a dump of about five centimetres of snow over six hours this morning so it's fresh to say the least," said Mr Stuart-Black.

While the snow was not hindering the team, he said it covered everything, making the area look surreal.

"For periods of time, particularly when you go down first thing in the morning, it's this blanket of snow.

"The snow starts melting, you start seeing the reality of the devastation that's really there on the ground."

The team members have warm winter gear and equipment for monitoring radiation.

- NZ Herald

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