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NATORI, Japan — A month after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, the challenges seem as daunting as ever: Thousands are missing and feared dead, tens of thousands have fled their homes, a leaking nuclear plant remains crippled and powerful aftershocks keep coming.
Vast tracts of the northeast are demolition sites: The stuff of entire cities is sorted into piles taller than three-story buildings around which dump trucks and earth-movers crawl. Ankle-deep water stagnates in streets, and massive fishing boats lie perched atop pancaked houses and cars. The occasional telephone poll or bulldozer is sometimes the only skyline.
“It’s a hellish sorrow,” said Numata Takahashi, 56, who escaped his home in Natori just before the waters came. “I don’t know where we’ll go, but I’m not coming back here. ... We’ll go somewhere where there are no tsunamis.”
Two strong aftershocks have killed people and sunk thousands more households into darkness, while also delaying progress on restoring power to those in darkness since March 11. Facing the prospect of massive shortfalls in the hot summer months, the government is asking companies to cut their consumption drastically or face mandatory energy caps.
Over this destruction and deprivation, the fear of radiation hangs. The tsunami knocked out power at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and reactors have been overheating since.
Progress in stabilizing the complex comes slowly most days, or not at all, as the new tremors and radiation repeatedly halt work. Monday’s aftershock briefly cut electricity to the plant and halted work while technicians took cover, but did not endanger operations, according to officials.
The government, meanwhile, added five communities Monday to a list of places people should leave to avoid long-term radiation exposure. A 12-mile radius has been cleared around the plant already.
“I am speechless over the uncertainty that our people must face each day,” said Yuhei Sato, the governor of Fukushima prefecture, which is home to the plant.
“Once we get over one mountain, we just see another rise up in front of us. We must find the end of the tunnel, but we haven’t, and that is terribly difficult to bear,” Sato told reporters minutes after communities across the northeast marked the moment the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck.
At 2:46 p.m., sirens wailed, and firefighters and soldiers removed their hats and helmets and joined hands atop a small hill in Natori that has become a memorial. The clatter of construction equipment ceased briefly as crane operators stood outside their vehicles.
The disaster is believed to have killed more than 25,000 people, but many of those bodies were swept out to sea and may never be found. Others lie near the nuclear plant, where radiation has slowed recovery efforts. So far, more than 13,000 deaths have been confirmed, while 13,700 names are still on the missing list.
The aftershocks have taken more lives. In Iwaki, a city close to the epicenter of Monday’s tremor, a landslide brought down three houses, trapping up to seven people. Four were rescued alive, but one of those — a 16-year-old girl — died at the hospital, a police official said. He would not give his name, citing policy.
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The bustle of the cleanup still hasn’t reached some places. Several miles north of the industrial city of Kamaishi, crumpled cars sat in living rooms and atop buildings. Houses washed from their foundations teetered on their sides.
Around 210,000 people have no running water and, following Monday’s aftershock, more than 240,000 people are without electricity.
The government has not said how long it will take to clear areas crushed by the wave, which is thought to have caused as much as $310 billion in damage.
It’s unclear how the rebuilding will be funded since the disaster slammed Japan’s economy just as it was beginning to emerge from a downward spiral. The International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook released Monday forecast 1.4 percent economic growth this year, down 0.2 percentage point from the January forecast. Rebuilding should eventually spur growth, though, the forecast said.
With the school year starting this month and most of the homeless living in gyms, officials are facing pressure to move people quickly into temporary housing. But in places, temporary housing is a distant dream. And sometimes, even the shelters provide no haven.
At one dilapidated high school, the mayor of Minami Soma — a city pummeled by the wave and straddling the nuclear evacuation zone — told those sheltering there they would have to leave next week because of concerns about the soundness of the building.
Most took the bad news with resignation, but they know it means they’ll have to move farther away from their homes. For some, it feels like moving backward, rather than forward.
“I have a baby, and this is really hard on us,” said Aya Satake at the girls’ high school in Soma, which neighbors her hometown.
“I’m afraid of staying here, but I’m also nervous about leaving and starting over in a new place with strangers,” she said as she cradled her 1-year-old.
In all, nearly 190,000 people have fled their homes, the vast majority of whom are living in shelters, according to the national disaster agency. About 85,000 are from the cleared zone around the nuclear plant; their homes may be intact, but it’s not known when they’ll be able to return to them.
Yutaka Endo said he feels like his life has been put on hold because of the nuclear crisis.
He fled Minami Soma and has been living in a shelter in Fukushima city for three weeks with his family.
“I can’t make any plans because of the nuclear crisis. My home was fine, but I can’t go back there because it is in a restricted area,” said the 32-year-old who used to tend bar. “I need to find a new job and a place to live so that we can get out of here. But I can’t do anything until these zones are lifted.”
Ryokou Sasaki said he and his elderly parents are in the same position. They’ve applied for temporary shelters, and are waiting to hear back.
He recently moved back home — to the northeastern port city of Kamaishi — to help his parents’ with their fishing business.
“We’re not in a place yet where we can even think about rebuilding the business yet,” said the 40-year-old. “They seem to have given up.”