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March 15, 2011

Snow, Hunger Add to Misery in Quake-Stricken Japan

A heavy snow fell over the piles of debris of the devastated towns in northeast Japan, leaving survivors huddling for warmth as they waited for emergency supplies of food, water and fuel.

International teams and Japanese soldiers spent Wednesday digging through the rubble, starting the gruesome task of searching for bodies of those who died in last week's record earthquake and tsunami.

In a rare address on public radio and television, revered Emperor Akihito urged all Japanese to take care of one another as they struggle to overcome the tragedy. He also expressed hope that authorities can get control of the situation at the troubled Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Teams from the United States, Britain and China were among about 200 foreign specialists assisting in the rescue effort Wednesday in the city of Ofunato, which was virtually obliterated by Friday's three-story tsunami.

Emergency centers were packed with roughly half a million people left homeless or unable to cope with the aftermath of Friday's 9-magnitude earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in Japan. Strong aftershocks continue to shake the ground.

The National Police Agency was quoted Wednesday saying more than 3,600 people have been confirmed dead and that more than 7,500 still are missing.

The head of Miyagi province was quoted earlier saying he believes at least 10,000 people are dead in his province alone.

Thousands more are injured and an estimated 60,000 homes and other buildings have been damaged.

Little is still known of the situation in several coastal communities in Iwate and Miyagi provinces, many of which remain inaccessible because of the damage to roads and infrastructure.

Outside the area of heaviest destruction, Japanese are coping with rolling electricity blackouts because of shortages stemming from the crisis at the Fukushima complex. The government's chief spokesman appealed Wednesday for people not to horde gasoline to ensure there is enough available for relief efforts.

Several countries have warned their nationals to consider moving away from the capital because of the risk of rising radiation. China reported it has already moved 1,200 of its citizens from troubled northern provinces, while Austria announced it is moving its embassy to Osaka, 400 kilometers from the capital.

In Ofunato, a port city of 40,000 in Iwate province, television pictures show virtually nothing is left standing near the waterfront. A TV crew followed a British search team as it dug for what was believed to be a live survivor but in the end found only another body.

The U.S. military newspaper Stars & Stripes quoted the head of a rescue team from Fairfax County near Washington D.C. as saying the chances of finding survivors drops significantly five days after a disaster and becomes remote after seven days.

The international teams are working alongside almost 100,000 members of Japan's Self Defense Forces who are spread out across the disaster zone. Officials said they will call up another 10,000 reserves, marking the first time that has been done.

For the living, misery mounted as the weather bureau predicted snow and several sub-freezing nights and near-freezing days. Officials say about 850,000 households in the north are still without electricity and 1.5 million are without running water.

Japan's Kyodo news agency says crematoriums in Miyagi province are running out of fuel to cremate bodies.