2011/03/18

Veteran rescuers stunned by Japan damage

OFUNATO, March 18, 2011 (AFP) - Picking through the wreckage of the port city of Ofunato on Japan's northeast coast, burly members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department are an incongruous sight.

The veterans of devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and Haiti, as well as Hurricane Katrina, are part of the first response wave to Japan's worst-ever quake and the tsunami that followed, reducing whole cities to rubble.

They are looking for survivors in the wreckage, but have found only bodies.

Even this 70-strong team of experienced disaster workers have been taken aback by the sheer scale of the devastation caused by the monstrous wave that came ashore on March 11.

"It was like a two-punch thing, where we had the earthquake and then the tsunami," said battalion chief Dave Stone. "It is mind-boggling."

"Just the area that is covered -- I have heard 450 square miles -- it just seems like a huge area damaged," he said, adding that crews had searched five square kilometres (two square miles) in their first two days on the ground.

Each time they find a body, they mark it for the Japanese authorities and move on.

They are still hopeful of finding people alive, but freezing temperatures and the length of time since the catastrophe mean the chances of finding any more survivors is remote.

"We saw a tugboat a mile away from the coast, cars and houses (destroyed) Unfortunately, if there is someone in that vehicle, it is going to be really hard to survive," Stone said.

Four international teams -- the Los Angeles team as well as squads from Britain, China and Fairfax County, Virginia in the United States -- are working in the fishing port, according to United Nations coordinators.

Some areas along the coast have been completely obliterated, with thousands of people missing, but Ofunato -- in devastated Iwate prefecture -- appears to have only a small number of missing people registered so far.

That could be good news, meaning that people were able to escape the wave. Or it could mean the worst -- that entire families were wiped out, leaving no one to report the missing.

Stone, who said the Japanese government had not given his group figures for the number of people unaccounted for in the area, said he was heartened that not many bodies had been found so far.

"When we first looked at the devastation we thought 'There has got to be people trapped in here' but I'm pleasantly surprised that our area has not seen so many bodies," he said.

"At least it appears people heeded the warnings and got out of harm's way," he added.
"We have not found any trapped victims and very few bodies."

The Los Angeles crew -- which includes rescue specialists, emergency room doctors, structural engineers and hazardous materials experts -- has mapped out an escape route in the event of another tsunami or major nuclear incident.

Part of the team is monitoring radiation levels in the area, after the series of explosions and fires at the troubled Fukushima No.1 nuclear plant, to the southwest of Ofunato.

"The main thing we have is the enthusiasm, we want to make a difference,' said Stone.

"We came for search and rescue, and once the government of Japan decides it has gone from rescue to recovery, we either go home or, like in Haiti, we set up a children's hospital or undertake structural surveys."