East Japan Earthquake    March 11, 2011

Body bag, coffin shortage in quake area of Japan

March 17, 2011

Hundreds of dead have washed ashore on Japan's devastated northeast coast since last week's earthquake and tsunami. Others were dug out of the debris yesterday by firefighters using pickaxes and chainsaws. Funeral homes and crematoriums are overwhelmed, and officials have run out of body bags and coffins. Most Japanese opt to cremate their dead, and with so many bodies, the Government waived a rule requiring permission first from local authorities before cremation or burial to speed up funerals, said Health Ministry official Yukio Okuda. "The current situation is so extraordinary, and it is very likely that crematoriums are running beyond capacity," said Okuda. "This is an emergency measure. We want to help quake-hit people as much as we can." The town of Soma has only one crematorium that can handle 18 bodies a day, said an official, Katsuhiko Abe. "We are overwhelmed and are asking other cites to help us deal with bodies," Abe said. Millions of people spent another day with little food, water or heating in cold temperatures as they dealt with the loss of homes and loved ones. Hajime Sato, a government official in Iwate prefecture, one of the hardest hit, said deliveries of supplies were just 10 per cent of what is needed. Body bags and coffins were running so short the Government may turn to foreign funeral homes for help, he said. The pulverised coast has been hit by hundreds of aftershocks and a tsunami scare. As sirens wailed in Soma, the worst hit town in Fukushima prefecture, soldiers abandoned their search operations and yelled to residents: "Find high ground! Get out of here!" The warning turned out to be a false alarm and interrupted the efforts of search parties clearing a jumble of broken timber, plastic sheets, roofs, sludge, twisted cars, tangled power lines and household goods. Ships were flipped over near roads, a kilometre inland. Officials said one-third of the city of 38,000 people was flooded and thousands were missing. Though Japanese officials have refused to speculate on the death toll, Indonesian geologist Hery Harjono, who dealt with the 2004 Asian tsunami, said it would be "a miracle really if it turns out to be less than 10,000" dead. The 2004 disaster killed 230,000 people, of which only 184,000 bodies were found. Harjono noted many bodies in Japan may have been sucked out to sea or remain trapped beneath rubble. But he also stressed that Japan's infrastructure, high-level of preparedness and city planning to keep houses away from the shore could mitigate its human losses.

ciffinCoffins of quake and tsunami victims are laid at a gymnasium in the town of Rifu, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, on March 18, 2011. The historic earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern and eastern Japan on March 11. (Kyodo)

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