RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan (Reuters) - A wrecked airplane lies nose-deep in splintered wood from homes in the port of Sendai. An hour’s drive away, workers in white masks and protective clothing scan thousands of people for radiation.
Two days after a ferocious earthquake and tsunami submerged Japan’s northeast coast, killing thousands and leaving millions of people without electricity or running water, many are struggling to comprehend the scale of the disaster.
“Is it a dream? I just feel like I am in a movie or something,” said Ichiro Sakamoto, 50, in Hitachi, a city in Ibaraki Prefecture. “Whenever I am alone I have to pinch my cheek to check whether it’s a dream or not.”
In Sendai, a city of one million, survivors and rescue workers picked through piles of rubbish mixed with wood and other debris from buildings and homes, searching for belongings and removing bodies.
Some hoarded supplies. A queue of cars waiting for fuel stretched 2 km (1.2 miles) in Sendai. About 300 people crowded into a supermarket, and about 40 lined up at Circle K Sunkus, a convenience store.
“There have been tsunami before but they were just small. No one ever thought that it could be like this,” said Michiko Yamada, a 75-year-old in Rikuzentakata, a nearly flattened village in far-northern Iwate prefecture.
“The tsunami was black and I saw people on cars and an old couple get swept away right in front of me.”
Many bodies were discovered under rubble on Sunday in Yamada’s village, where about 5,000 homes were submerged, Kyodo News reported. In nearby Otsuchi village, the town office was swept away with the mayor and local officials apparently inside.
A 60-year-old man was found floating on a piece of roof about 15 km (9 miles) offshore from Fukushima prefecture. Hiromitsu Shinkawa was airlifted and in “good condition” after being swept out to sea with his home, Kyodo said.
South of Sendai in Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture, tens of thousands of people evacuated from areas around a crippled nuclear power plant were scanned for radiation exposure.
Although the government insists radiation levels are low a day after an explosion in the main building of the plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, white-masked workers in protective hats and gowns used handheld scanners to people for radiation.
“It’s quite scary,” said 17-year-old Masanori Ono, queuing at one Koriyama evacuation center.
About 10,000 people were feared killed by the earthquake. and as many as 20,820 buildings were either destroyed or badly damaged. The death toll could go higher. Local governments had lost contact with tens of thousands of people, Kyodo said.
As the government marshaled 100,000 soldiers in the rescue effort, doubling its earlier number, reports of dramatic losses trickled in.
A nursing home with 30 elderly residents had been washed away in Ofunato, a small northern coastal city. The town of Minamisanriku was practically flattened. Authorities failed to locate over half its 17,500 people.
In Rikuzentakata, survivors scrambled to retrieve their belongings, at times clambering over uprooted trees, overturned cars and marooned boats.
Several Rikuzentakata neighborhoods were completely gone, creating a vast muddy wasteland with only the sturdiest buildings left intact. Bodies found by rescue workers and soldiers were covered with blankets and marked with wooden sticks with red and yellow flags, waiting to be removed.
“We cannot fully grasp the extent of the damage,” said Futoshi Toba, the village mayor, whose wife is missing. “Water, food, gasoline and kerosene - these are all lacking. We will do our best to secure them.”
Cars were flipped. Mud and wood filled a train station. A family photo stuck out of the muddy ground near one destroyed home. Like many remote, rural Japanese villages, Rikuzentakata was already on decline, its population of 24,500 had been aging and local industry shrinking.
“There is no real industry here and the rate of older people is growing while the population has been shrinking,” said Tsuneo Onodera, 71. “More young people will leave the city.”
About 1,340 people took refuge at a local shelter overnight in a school in near-freezing temperatures. Inside, people slept curled up in the cold, covered in blankets. Some sat on chairs around heaters, talking with family and friends.
Worried relatives checked an information board on survivors, some weeping, others whispering and huddling in a group.
“I am looking for my parents and my older brother,” Yuko Abe, 54, said in tears. “Seeing the way the area is, I thought that perhaps they did not make it....I also cannot tell my siblings that live away that I am safe, as mobile phones and telephones are not working.”
About 350,000 people have been evacuated nationwide, including 140,000 from areas near the nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture.
In Tokyo, where many have long feared another powerful earthquake of the scale that killed about 140,000 people in 1923, residents watched seemingly endless televised footage of fires, collapsed buildings and the deadly waves.
“Even in the bar, we kept staring at the news,” said Kasumi, a 26-year-old woman meeting a friend for a drink in the central district of Akasaka on Saturday night. “I looked at the tsunami swallowing houses and it seemed like a film.”
Additional reporting by Chris Meyers in Sendai. Writing by Jason Szep, editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Mathew Veedon