As Nuclear Emergency Worsens, Death Toll Jumps

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Report from TIME’s Krista Mahr in Kesennuma:

There are few good places to be right now in what’s left of this savaged corner of Kesennuma, Japan. But the gymnasium at the Hibiki High School is the very last place anybody wants to have to visit. On a hilltop over the washed-out mud flats where houses stood this time last week, the local high school gym has become the temporary morgue, a piece of high ground where the district’s growing number of dead will be safe from any further harm as tsunami alerts continue to be raised.

Inside the hall, the floor is covered in light blue plastic. A low, blue wall dissects the room, and behind it are several carefully laid symmetrical rows of wooden coffins covered in white cloths. For the past two days, hospitals and residents have been delivering bodies here. Families sit in metal chairs at edge of the room, filling out the legal paperwork to claim the bodies they have identified. “They come here knowing their loved ones have passed away, so they are fully prepared,” says Koji Iwabuchi, the police captain on duty who is overseeing the operation here. “But once they see the body, they can’t stop crying.”

As reports of yet another explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant surfaced Monday, injuring at least 11 workers with 7 missing, Japan is still far from knowing the final number of lives taken by the triple catastrophes that started here on its east coast on March 11. The rescue effort has been arduous: the area affected by the tsunami that followed the 8.9 quake stretches for hundreds of kilometers, swaths affected by nuclear contamination in Fukushima prefecture have not been accessible, and some of the worst-struck areas in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures have also been physically cut off. On Monday, 1000 bodies were reported to have washed up along the coast in Miyagi prefecture, bringing the official death toll to 2800 people. Police, however, expect the number will be closer to 10,000.

The enormity of the job ahead of rescuers is evident at a glance around Motoyoshi town, a few kilometers away from the makeshift morgue. Tangled hives of timber and car parts and houses lifted off their foundations and redeposited in chaotic heaps are strewn along a coastal road running through the town. Five people are missing from this area, but as one Self Defense Force soldier on a search and rescue team working here points out, this is just one small part of much larger problem. “We know what’s happening here,” he says. Pointing to a spot in the distance, he adds, “But we don’t know what’s happening over there.”

Yasutaro Oikawa, 80, watches as four camo-clad SDF soldiers crawl in and around what’s left of his car, its windows packed tight with mud and branches. His family has lived in this village for generations, and on Friday, he watched the sea roll in and sweep his house down a forested gully. Like so many others, the retired fisherman is now trying to locate a family member. “I don’t know where my grandson is,” Oikawa says. ‘I have been in small tsunamis before, but nothing like this.”

The constant seismic activity that continues to rock Japan has also been a major hitch in the rescue operation. On Sunday alone, nearly 100 aftershocks were recorded, according to the United States Geological Survey. “The rescue effort hasn’t been moving quickly because the teams keep having to evacuate,” says Iwabuchi, the police captain. Behind him, another wrapped corpse has just been lifted into a waiting coffin – now 32 in total. “The tsunami warnings are still coming,” he says. And for days, he says, so will the bodies.