YAMADA/RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan (Reuters) - A week after their lives were turned upside down by the biggest recorded earthquake in Japan’s history, many survivors are too shocked to contemplate the future.
“My house does not exist anymore. Everything is gone, including money,” said Tsukasa Sato, a 74-year-old barber with a heart condition, as he warmed his hands in front of a stove at a shelter in Yamada, northern Japan.
“This is where I was born, so I want to stay here. I don’t know how it will turn out, but this is my hope.”
The official death toll from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami now stands at 6,539, making it Japan’s worst peacetime disaster, surpassing the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
Over 10,000 people are missing, many feared dead, and about 390,000 have been forced out of their homes.
Over 850,000 households are without electricity in freezing weather, and 1.6 million are without running water.
To the south of Yamada, the quake has crippled a nuclear power complex that is leaking radiation. People living within 20 km (12 miles) have been told to evacuate.
The government said on Friday it was considering moving some of the hundreds of thousands of evacuees such as Sato to parts of the country unscathed by the disaster.
“We are considering it and making arrangements,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters.
That just adds to the uncertainty for victims like Sato, as snow continues to fall gently on what remains of the town — once home to nearly 20,000 people but now a wasteland of shattered and charred rubble.
Much of what wasn’t destroyed by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake was smashed to bits by the subsequent tsunami; what escaped the giant waves was torched by fires that broke out in the aftermath.
Deputy mayor Shopichi Sato declines to give even approximate casualty figures for the town as he has bigger immediate problems: how to dispose of hundreds of corpses at a crematorium that can only handle five at a time — and with fuel for the furnace fast running out.
Mirroring Japan’s national demographic, Yamada was home to a significant population of elderly people who now make up a majority of survivors gathered at an elementary school gymnasium that escaped the carnage on the edge of town.
Bundled in blankets against the biting cold, they huddle around stoves — some chatting to pass the time, others just staring blankly into the distance, or at their hands.
Rescue and salvage workers have tried to bring some humanity to their plight. Photo albums, pictures and other keepsakes recovered from the rubble have been placed near the entrance to one shelter in the hope that survivors might find some of their memories.
Some 50 km (30 miles) further south, the once-picturesque seaside town of Rikuzentakada, which boasted a population of around 23,000 people, is now a muddy wasteland.
Inside the skeletal remains of a resort hotel, loose broken pipes are blown about by an icy wind, the sound of colliding metal mingling with the cries of seagulls.
Dozens of firemen, Self Defence Force personnel and other helpers comb the area, ostensibly searching for survivors but only finding bodies. The squawk of radios breaks the muted silence to announce another grim discovery.
“Three bodies found. One is male, in his 70s; gender and age of the other two unknown,” says a disembodied voice.
Hayato Murakami, 73, an amateur photographer, had returned with his son to where his house once stood to see if anything could be salvaged.
Last Friday he escaped the tsunami by running up a hill, making it to safety with seconds to spare. Many of his friends and neighbors were not so lucky.
Scrambling through the debris, Murakami and his son had collected a tray of his clothes, two 10,000 yen bills, a sepia-toned baby photo of the elder Murakami, and another picture of his son and grandchild.
He was most excited about finding his wallet with the membership to a Tokyo art club.
“I must have spent about 32 million yen on all kinds of camera equipment over the years,” he said. “You could build two houses with that kind of money. Its all gone.” (Writing by David Fox; Editing by Jason Szep)