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Japan disaster relief now getting through to most survivors

Tens of thousands of Japan earthquake evacuees survived for days on very little. Now supplies are getting through, but Prime Minister Naoto Kan warned that "life in the emergency refuge centers will continue for some time."

By Correspondent / March 20, 2011

A Japan Ground Self Defense Force vehicle drives off a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) at Yokota Airbase in this picture taken by U.S. Air Force on March 18. Disaster relief is now reaching most survivors in Japan.

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Steffen/U.S. Air Force/Reuters

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Oshika Peninsular, Japan

Two vital things have improved for more than 250,000 evacuees still living in makeshift shelters a week after the Japan earthquake: supplies are getting through, and the weather has warmed up for now.

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The Watanoha Elementary School, the ground floor of which was flooded by the March 11 tsunami, is home to some 1,000 evacuees from the surrounding Ishinomaki City area who spent the first five days there with no food or water supplies.

“We survived on snacks, cakes, and whatever food we happened to have on us for five days,” says Tomio Yamane. “It was so cold, we had no way of warming ourselves and people were getting no proper nutrition. It's amazing nobody died here at the shelter."

The resilient character of the Japanese people has been on international display for the past week as this nation struggles to regroup from the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that erased communities and gave a blow to the economy. For many evacuees, there is now nowhere to go, and Prime Minister Naoto Kan has warned that "life in the emergency refuge centers will continue for some time yet."

"To everyone in the emergency refuge centers, I express my deepest sympathy for the hardships you are undergoing, in the cold, with meager supplies of food and water, and limited access to toilet facilities," Mr. Kan said in statement Thursday marking the one week since the earthquake. "At present, we in the government are working flat out to supply you with the food and blankets and other things you need."

Families reunited

With the ground floor of Watanoha Elementary School still damp and in disarray, the classrooms on the upper three stories have become cramped sleeping quarters, storerooms, and a basic medical room. Medicine is now arriving – the Marine Self-Defense Force has used the school playground as a helipad – and food and water is coming in by road. Communal meals are also being cooked in the playground using wood from the innumerable destroyed houses in the city.

“The ambulances and Army began to arrive after a few days and took the sick and weak to hospitals. There were 1,200 to 1,300 of us here at one point,” says Ms. Yamane.

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