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Thousands Missing, Displaced In Japan

GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz, coming to you from our studios at NPR West in Southern California this weekend.

(Soundbite of supermarket)

RAZ: Sound from a supermarket in the city of Sendaiko Park in northeastern Japan when that devastating earthquake struck on Friday. Japan's buildings are designed to withstand earthquakes, but it was the walls of water, tsunamis triggered by that quake that left thousands homeless and an unknown number dead or missing.

At the moment, the people of Japan are hoping to avert a third disaster, a meltdown, at one of the country's nuclear reactors, about 170 miles northeast of Tokyo. As a precaution, Japan's prime minister, Naoto Kan, ordered an evacuation.

Prime Minister NAOTO KAN (Japan): (Nihongo spoken)

RAZ: The prime minister asked people living within 15 miles in the Fukushima reactor to leave. We'll have more on the possibilities and consequences of a meltdown in a moment.

But first to our correspondent Rob Gifford who is in Osaka in Japan.

And, Rob, first to the rescue efforts, what can you tell us about the search for survivors in the hardest hit areas?

ROB GIFFORD: Well, the government here has mobilized tens of thousands of people. There's 50,000 troops alone being sent up to the devastated areas. I think as we look at the pictures, though, it's clear that most of the worst devastation has come from the tsunami itself. There are towns that have been completely flattened, where I'm not sure they're going to find any survivors.

So, what is happening is they're taking food and water and equipment out there for the people, a couple of hundred thousand people who've been displaced who managed to make it to higher ground or onto the tops of buildings and whose homes have either been damaged or completely washed away.

RAZ: Rob, one of the things I've been wondering about is, how much warning time did most people get after the quake of an imminent tsunami? I mean, can we assume that many of the missing did get out in time and simply haven't been accounted for?

GIFFORD: I think the fact that if it's possible to talk about anything being fortunate in this terrible disaster, the fact that the epicenter of the earthquake was offshore, could be described as somewhat fortunate because there was at least a little bit of time before the tsunami hit the coastline. And of course, also, the buildings damaged by the earthquake were not as serious as if the epicenter had been onshore.

But, indeed, there are pictures from helicopters that had time to get up into the air, where we've seen some of the waves coming in, sweeping through towns and knocking over buildings. So, anyone who could scramble onto the rooftop of a building or up onto the higher floors had a miraculous escape, but thousands and thousands have undoubtedly been killed along this coastline.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. Of course, all eyes are on that reactor in northeastern Japan. What are Japanese officials, Rob, saying about the likelihood of a meltdown?

GIFFORD: Obviously, the pictures yesterday of the actual explosion at the plant were extremely worrying and they have moved people from an area of about 13 miles around the nuclear plant itself. They have been trying to reassure people somewhat, though, as things have become a little bit clearer, saying that the explosion destroyed the building containing the reactor but not the reactor itself, which is encased in steel.

But, so far, it looks as though they are managing to contain it. And they say, in fact, that it's on a level of one to seven, where Chernobyl was seven, Three Mile Island with five, this is a four, a category four, Japanese Nuclear Safety Agency is saying. So, not as dangerous as Three Mile Island is what they're saying at the moment.

RAZ: That's NPR's Rob Gifford in Osaka, Japan.

Rob, thank you.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.