Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) move cases of sports drinks and water Monday in preparation to support disaster relief efforts. The Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group is conducting disaster relief operations in the coastal waters off northern Japan in the wake of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy, MC2 Melissa Russell)
By JAY ALABASTER and TODD PITMAN
TAGAJO, Japan — There are just too many bodies.
Hundreds of dead have washed ashore on Japan’s devastated northeast coast since last week’s earthquake and tsunami. Others were dug out of the debris Monday by firefighters using pickaxes and chain saws.
Funeral homes and crematoriums are overwhelmed, and officials have run out of body bags and coffins.
Compounding the disaster, water levels dropped precipitously inside a Japanese nuclear reactor, twice leaving the uranium fuel rods completely exposed and raising the threat of a meltdown, hours after a hydrogen explosion tore through the building housing a different reactor.
On the economic front, Japan’s stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries including big names such as Toyota and Honda.
While the official death toll rose to nearly 1,900, the discovery of the washed-up bodies and other reports of deaths suggest the true number is much higher. In Miyagi, the police chief has estimated 10,000 deaths in his province alone.
Miyagi prefecture bore the full force of Friday’s tsunami, and police said 1,000 bodies were found scattered across its coast. The Kyodo news agency reported that 2,000 bodies washed up on two shorelines in Miyagi.
Most Japanese opt to cremate their dead, and with so many bodies, the government on Monday waived a rule requiring permission first from local authorities before cremation or burial to speed up funerals, said Health Ministry official Yukio Okuda.
“The current situation is so extraordinary, and it is very likely that crematoriums are running beyond capacity,” said Okuda. “This is an emergency measure. We want to help quake-hit people as much as we can.”
The town of Soma has only one crematorium that can handle 18 bodies a day, said an official, Katsuhiko Abe.
“We are overwhelmed and are asking other cites to help us deal with bodies,” Abe told The Associated Press.
Millions of people spent a fourth night with little food, water or heating in near-freezing temperatures as they dealt with the loss of homes and loved ones. Asia’s richest country hasn’t seen such hardship since World War II.
Hajime Sato, a government official in Iwate prefecture, one of the hardest hit, said deliveries of supplies were just 10 percent of what is needed. Body bags and coffins were running so short that the government may turn to foreign funeral homes for help, he said.
The pulverized coast has been hit by hundreds of aftershocks, the latest one a 6.2 magnitude quake that was followed by a new tsunami scare Monday.
As sirens wailed in Soma, the worst hit town in Fukushima prefecture, soldiers abandoned their search operations and yelled to residents: “Find high ground! Get out of here!”
The warning turned out to be a false alarm and interrupted the efforts of search parties clearing a jumble of broken timber, plastic sheets, roofs, sludge, twisted cars, tangled power lines and household goods.
Ships were flipped over near roads, a half-mile (a kilometer) inland. Officials said one-third of the city of 38,000 people was flooded and thousands were missing.
Though Japanese officials have refused to speculate on the death toll, Indonesian geologist Hery Harjono, who dealt with the 2004 Asian tsunami, said it would be “a miracle really if it turns out to be less than 10,000” dead.
The 2004 disaster killed 230,000 people — of which only 184,000 bodies were found.
Harjono noted that many bodies in Japan may have been sucked out to sea or remain trapped beneath rubble as they did in Indonesia’s hardest-hit Aceh province. But he also stressed that Japan’s infrastructure, high-level of preparedness and city planning to keep houses away from the shore could mitigate its human losses.
According to public broadcaster NHK, some 430,000 people are in emergency shelters or with relatives, while another 24,000 are stranded.
One reason for the loss of power is the damage to several nuclear reactors in the area. At one plant, Fukushima Dai-ichi, three reactors have lost the ability to cool down. A building holding one of them exploded Monday, the second such blast at the plant in three days.
A top Japanese official said the fuel rods in all three of the most troubled reactors appeared to be melting. Unit 2 caused the most worry.
Technicians struggled to raise water levels in the reactor, but the rods remained partially exposed late Monday night, increasing the risk of the spread of radiation and the potential for an eventual meltdown.
“Units 1 and 3 are at least somewhat stabilized for the time being,” said Nuclear and Industrial Agency official Ryohei Shiomi. “Unit 2 now requires all our effort and attention.”
Though people living within a 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius were ordered to leave over the weekend, authorities told anyone remaining there or in nearby areas to stay inside their homes following Monday’s blast.
Military personnel on helicopters returning to ships with the U.S. 7th Fleet registered low-level of radioactive contamination Monday, but were cleared after a scrub-down. As a precaution, the ships shifted to a different area off the coast.
So far, Tokyo Electric Power, the nuclear plant’s operator, is holding off on imposing rolling blackouts, but the utility urged people to limit electricity use. Many regional train lines were suspended or operated a limited schedule.
The impact of the earthquake and tsunami on the world’s third-largest economy helped drag down the share markets Monday, the first business day since the disasters. The benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average fell 6.2 percent while the broader Topix index lost 7.5 percent.
To lessen the damage, Japan’s central bank injected 15 trillion yen ($184 billion) into money markets.
Initial estimates put repair costs in the tens of billions of dollars, costs that would likely add to a massive public debt that, at 200 percent of gross domestic product, is the biggest among industrialized nations.
Pitman reported from Sendai. Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge in Soma, Kelly Olsen in Koriyama, Malcolm J. Foster, Mari Yamaguchi, Tomoko A. Hosaka and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.