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Japan's battered northern half resembles war zone Add to ...

When Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that his country was facing its worst crisis since the Second World War, he surprised few here in the north of the country, which is simultaneously confronting three once-in-a-lifetime crises.

It's not hard to see the northern half of Japan's main island as a war zone, one in which the local residents are not faring very well. Entire villages have disappeared, tens of thousands of people are missing, roads are broken and airports are underwater.

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While the official death toll stood at 1,400 Sunday night, the police chief in hard-hit Miyagi prefecture estimated the number of dead at 10,000 in his region alone. Across the country, 310,000 people were staying in emergency shelters.

Here in Koriyama, a city of 330,000 people in Fukushima prefecture, there are two types of evacuation centres - one for those whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Friday's earthquake (which has now been upgraded to magnitude 9), the other for those who live close to one of the four nuclear reactors experiencing various types of emergencies.

"If the main reactor had exploded - and I didn't think that had happened - it would have been like the Hiroshima bomb," said Yasuni Usani, a 52-year-old employee of the Fukushima plant, who was among 2,000 people tested for radiation exposure in the wake of a Saturday explosion that destroyed the outer wall of the No. 1 reactor.

Another 180,000 people were evacuated from a 30-kilometre radius around the troubled plant.

Mr. Usani spoke with a sense of relief that the worst hadn't occurred, but the hours that followed were filled with new alerts about cooling system failures at five separate reactors at two nuclear power plants that are still in danger of overheating.

"At the risk of raising further public concern, we cannot rule out the possibility of an explosion," said Yukio Edano, chief secretary of the cabinet. He continued to call for calm, however. "If there is an explosion, however, there would be no significant impact on human health."

Though Mr. Edano has repeatedly stated that the country is not facing a Chernobyl-style meltdown at any of its endangered reactors, France and the United States have urged their citizens to avoid travel to Tokyo and the north of the country, citing ongoing aftershocks and concern over the nuclear plants.

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"I'm worried. Some people are coming in and asking for [potassium iodine]but we don't sell them because the Health Ministry never expected this kind of emergency," said Yoshiyuki Watabe, a pharmacist working at a store just north of Tokyo. "As a pharmacist, I cannot tell you it will save your life." Scientists say that stable iodine taken a few hours before radiation exposure would block the intake of the radioactive material in the thyroid.

On Sunday, Japan's woes deepened even further as a volcano erupted in the southwest of the country.

"This is Japan's most severe crisis since the war ended 65 years ago," Mr. Kan said, adding that the country's future would be determined by how it responded to the challenges.

It was no understatement. In the north, two towns - Rikusentakata and Minamisanrikucho - with populations of almost 20,000 people each, were virtually wiped off the map, while vast stretches of the city of Sendai, normally home to one million people, resembled a disaster movie set, with boats dropped in the middle of empty streets and cars swept along by the wave and dropped on top of houses.

"I haven't given up hope yet," said Etsuko Koyama, who lost her grip on her daughter's hand as the waves crashed through their home Friday. With tears in her eyes, she told public broadcaster NHK that she hadn't seen the little girl since. "I saved myself, but I couldn't save my daughter."

The earth continued to shake throughout the day Sunday, bringing to more than 150 the number of aftershocks felt since the largest tremblor Friday. The Japan Meteorological Agency has warned that there is a 70-per-cent likelihood of another earthquake of magnitude 7 or more by Wednesday morning local time.

With the country's electricity grid badly damaged, there will be planned electricity blackouts throughout the Monday, the first day back at work since the crisis began.

Aid money and humanitarian workers began to pour into the country, meanwhile, with more than 70 countries offering help, an outpouring that was in part a response to Japan's role as a leading foreign aid donor. Even the impoverished and violence-racked Afghan city of Kandahar offered to contribute $50,000, an amount it said was a "show of appreciation" for Japan's efforts to rebuild southern Afghanistan.

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