A forlorn hunt for food numbs nuclear anxiety

By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post / March 20, 2011

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SENDAI, Japan — Five of her relatives are confirmed dead, and others are missing; her leg is battered from a frantic flight to higher ground; her home is just a few dozen miles from a haywire nuclear power plant burping radiation into the air.

Yesterday, however, Keiko Oikawa could barely contain her joy. “I’m so lucky, really, really lucky,’’ the ecstatic housewife said. The source of her glee: 10 fresh eggs in a crumpled cardboard box.

“I can’t believe my luck,’’ said Oikawa, explaining that she’d stumbled on a farmer selling eggs while hunting for somewhere to charge her mobile phone. She doesn’t have any electricity at home.

Eight days after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake sent a merciless wall of water crashing onto Japan’s northeastern coast, a city once noted for its jazz festival and expansive joie de vivre is reduced to foraging for basic necessities.

The descent of a vibrant metropolis toward a state of simple survival has helped numb the population to a further agony. Many here are too preoccupied with day-to-day needs to focus on unseen dangers leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant down the coast.

“Instead of worrying about things I can’t see, I worry about things I can see,’’ said Oikawa, showing off her newly purchased eggs.

As the major city nearest the crippled power station, Sendai residents are not blase about the potential risk, just distracted.

Weather reports on television are watched anxiously to see which way the winds will be blowing — and which way radioactive material might travel in the event of Chernobyl-style catastrophe. Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day with cloudless skies, but blustery winds kept shifting.

Electricity and water supplies are slowly being restored in the city. Phones are mostly back up. To speed deliveries of food and other supplies, a four-lane toll highway leading west to the city of Niigata is closed to all but emergency convoys and the vehicles of Japan’s Self-Defense Force, which has borne the brunt of relief efforts.

Much aid is being donated by American groups. During an emergency meeting last week, more than 100 residents of Riverside, Calif., gathered to help Sendai, their sister city in Japan.

It was an effort repeated across the United States, as towns big and small responded to the destruction and lives lost in Japanese cities that participate in Sister Cities International, a nonprofit group funded by the State Department.

The southern outskirts of Sendai lie within a 50-mile zone that the United States has advised its citizens to avoid because of radiation risk, but “we worry about food, about getting stuff to put in our mouths,’’ said Yuji Sugawara, who has taken refuge in a shelter providing regular meals.

Japan has declared a more-limited 20-mile evacuation zone, and Sugawara is alarmed by what he sees as his government’s obfuscations. “I can’t trust them anymore,’’ he said.

But he spends far more energy worrying about when he and his wife will be able to move back into their waterlogged home and what they’ll do for food when they do. Most shops, their stocks exhausted, shut down days ago.

“Batteries, candles, mobile phone chargers, food, and anything edible are all sold out,’’ reads a sign on the shuttered doors of a convenience store. top stories on Twitter

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