Japan disaster: Barrage of threats adds to confusion in disaster region

By Michael Dickison

Herald reporter Michael Dickison grew up in Japan and speaks fluent Japanese. He returned last week to report on the ravaged countryside of his other homeland

The woman next to me on the bus said she didn't know where to evacuate to.

"Or what from: the earthquake, tsunami or nuclear reactors."

Her house is 40km from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which has spewed radioactive particles into the air after the 9-magnitude earthquake.

Officially, she's safe. Only residents within a 20km radius were told to evacuate, while those between 20km and 30km are advised to stay indoors.

But the woman has made the call to get away - she doesn't want to become a forced refugee needing help from agencies.

It's about taking responsibility and being prepared, she says. The virtue of being self-reliant weighs against not taking up too many resources.

The few buses that have begun running south to Tokyo are booked for weeks. Others have queues stretching around city blocks, waiting mostly in vain.

This leaves the ones shuttling between disaster areas, though they still require waiting in long lines. Eventually you get a seat to go from nuclear peril to quake epicentre.

"It's frightening - all of it," the woman says.

She has a lot on her plate. But that evening, the Japanese state television channel kindly throws another death threat into the mix.

We might be killed by low levels of carbon monoxide, it says during an hour of Earthquake Lifeline.

There was the quake, tsunami, aftershocks, power cuts, shortages of basic supplies, overheating nuclear reactors, radioactive spinach and milk, and now ... carbon monoxide?

The context is vague. The broadcaster just says, "Please remember to ventilate whenever you heat your rooms."

Maybe people are lighting ill-advised fires in or near their rooms as they improvise to keep warm. With many homes dependent on kerosene for heating, and with kerosene as scarce as petrol, the ground has been made fertile for bad ideas.

Still, the state television's advice appears out of the blue. It is random - but the kind of confusion it causes is not.

People in Sendai, the closest big city to the earthquake's epicentre, are in a foraging craze this long weekend. Today is a holiday to mark the spring equinox, the passing of the seasons. Symbolically, it could be meaningful, even nice. Seasons are cornerstones of Japanese culture.

The spring equinox could mark a time for regrowth. Instead, the lines out of the few open dairies and chemists show the city is still burrowing deeper into resignation, not sure how to move forward.

A normally 24-hour convenience store has opened for two hours for cigarettes, hot drinks and various food items. Customers are limited to 10 items each.

Many young people walk out with bags of instant noodles, easy meals for some. But others are still stocking up, for "just in case", still opting for what is the typical Japanese emergency food. Some shoppers have found leeks, carrots, rice and other stock that could make real meals. So the overwhelming popularity of instant noodles isn't necessary - it's confusion about the present danger.

The next most common items are crackers and big boxes of cute little chocolate puff pies. If instant noodles might be meals, these are just comfort.

"For now I just want things in my house," says a woman who spent her quota on the pies. Even chemists are supplying such snacks, and people walking out of drugstores have bought mostly storable food items rather than medical necessities.

Other people have bought a few cans of beer, running shoes (for escaping) and one old woman some icecream.

"It calms me down while watching television," she says. "I get nervous."

This, I think, is a half-truth. I imagine she sits at home in a winter coat and boots, with a fully packed bag on her back, braced for the next disaster. She doesn't just get nervous - in her outfit she gets sweaty.

By 5pm, everything is closing. The streets near the central station are crowded for some time as people find their ways home, mostly waiting for local buses reduced to one an hour. Each person carries several plastic bags, security in one form or another.

There are also many people dragging suitcases, the out-of-towners who are looking for a place to stay or are just passing through.

As it gets dark, it is apparent that the emerging city will have no weekend nightlife.

Strangely, however, two types of businesses are open: pachinko parlours and hairdressers.

Pachinko is a Japanese slot machine. The parlours let you circumvent bans on casinos as you gamble thousands of tiny metal balls, trade them for prizes, then sell the prizes for money.

I have never tried it before, but it seems a good time to gamble some of the Herald's money for research.

The slot machines are loud with flashing lights everywhere. And unfortunately, sitting with intense concentration in front of individual slot machines, there is no talking. For the Herald, there is also no winning. The only thing clear is that the businesses are thriving.

The hairdressers are open for shampoos and maybe a haircut. Water, particularly hot water, is hard to come by for many.

A young woman walking home at night talks about how she has been confused by many things since the earthquake.

"I didn't even know the difference between propane and LPG. I never took notice of which my house used," she says. She is not sure what she needs; she just knows there isn't enough of it.

All the shortages and confusion could be solved by one thing - petrol.

With fuel too hard to come by, I have left my car in Fukushima, and I take a bus to Sendai.

I wait in line with people wearing masks and armed with various sized suitcases, part of an exodus from the prefecture. Several buses are packed full every hour. The buses are allowed on to the highway, which is bumpy at parts and still being repaired.

But vehicles still cruise at 90km/h, cutting travel times down to a half or a third - even more if you include the time you'd spend in a car searching and waiting all day for a chance to refuel a few litres.

Inside the bus is mostly quiet, but a few people contemplate where they might end up. For the woman next to me, the destination is simply "away". As she hops off the bus in Sendai, she hopes she can find a seat in another to keep taking her further.

But it is striking how empty the highway is - how much capacity it has. There are a few trucks, army vehicles, buses and ambulances travelling in both directions.

But hardly any petrol tankers drive past. Of the four or five that do, half turn out to be carrying LPG.

Oil company bosses have been on television insisting they have stocks of petrol - they just can't get it to people.

Then where are the convoys of tankers on the highways? I don't believe the trucks do not exist. Have they been restricted somewhere?

As a restaurant chef told me, if only he could fill up his car, then he could restock, reopen and start bringing life back to normal. But without petrol, there's no end to the sense of being in a disaster and having to take shelter.

When might things start getting better? "Right now I just don't know," he says.

- NZ Herald

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