Huge petrol queues stretch Japan survivors' nerves

SENDAI, March 13, 2011 (AFP) - Desperate quake survivors were running short of water, petrol and patience in Japan's tsunami-ravaged city of Sendai on Sunday as they faced endless petrol station queues.

Some resorted to siphoning fuel from tanks of cars and motorcycles mangled in Friday's horrific earthquake and tsunami, while others collected whatever groceries they could find in the rubble of destroyed shops.

With water desperately short, most petrol stations empty or offline, widespread power blackouts and the phone system near collapse, people struggled without the very basics of modern life on the third day after the disaster.

Most shops and restaurants in Sendai, a usually busy commercial hub, were closed because of the physical damage, power cuts, lack of stock or because their owners and staff had left with their families.

One retired woman, 64-year-old Satsuko Aizawa, was stuck at the end of a queue of more than 100 cars snaking slowly to a gas station.

"I've been here for four hours and I can't even see the gas station yet," she said.

Four hours later she was still waiting in the same line but the row of cars behind her had tripled in length.

As darkness fell many of those waiting with their engines off shuddered against the bitter night-time chill.

"This is my work for today," Aizawa said. "I have to do this."

Some sought fuel to leave the region, as a nuclear emergency unfolded to their south on the Pacific coast at atomic power plants damaged by the quake and tsunami.

Many petrol stations in Sendai were closed because they were damaged in the massive earthquake, lacked the power to run pumps, or simply ran out of fuel.

Some rationed petrol to 1,000 yen ($12) per car and prioritised emergency service vehicles -- with ambulances and fire trucks, their sirens wailing, on missions to and from the area ravaged by the tsunami.

Gas station owner Shoji Goike used a hand-powered pump to sell 10 litres of gasoline per vehicle for 1,500 yen each to about 600 customers.

"I wanted to share this with everyone," he said, as young staff took turns at the sweaty task of hand-pumping petrol all day.

Many motorists drove around searching for a refill, mindful that they were wasting fuel in the process, while others pushed cars with the engines off.

Drivers said they were running near-empty when the quake struck because they usually fill tanks on weekends -- or because they were waiting for a drop in prices amid turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa.

Sadao Yamauchi, 59, was at his petrol station watching several hundred cars move by at snail's pace. "We have about 30,000 liters of gasoline, but our pumps don't work," he said.

Yamauchi said he had lost power at his house and was sleeping in a sports utility vehicle with his wife and two grown-up daughters.

With his SUV now his temporary family home, he was doing a minimum of driving and not using the car heater to preserve every precious drop of fuel.

"It gets very cold at night," he said, "but we have to keep the engine off to save gas."