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Video: Survivors in the aftermath: 'I don’t recognize anything'

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    >>> now to the enormous human drama in the aftermath of this disaster, the death and destruction, the shortage of basic supplies in the quake so zone like food, water, gasoline. for some perspective, japan is about 10% smaller than california. a large percentage of japan felt the effects of the quake, but the tsunami damage was worst in the region to the north of tokyo in sendai . nbc's lester holt is there tonight heading up our coverage. lester, good evening.

    >> reporter: brian, good evening. you used the term a moment ago hyperprepared nation, and you get the sense that if it was just the quake, japan would have quickly gotten back on its feet, but the tsunami seemed to knock it over the edge , over the brink action and now over the last 24 hours , we've seen the sea giving back the dead, those who were cruelly swept out to sea last friday. the destruction extends as far as the eye can see. an almost incomprehensible landscape. emergency workers aided by 100,000 japanese troops pulling out more bodies today. there are few survivors left to find. japan hasn't seen anything like this since world war ii . friday's tsunami inundated communities shattered just minutes before by the most powerful earthquake japan has ever seen. now three days later, more than a thousand bodies have washed ashore. many more are expected. nbc's ian williams saw the devastation firsthand.

    >> it's hard to imagine that until friday this wasteland was a busy residential neighborhood. they have no idea how many bodies are buried here or was swept away with so much of the town.

    >> reporter: for the living a nightmare. millions are without clean water , electricity, adequate first aid or shelter in the mid-march cold. somehow, the japanese sense of order prevails, but the trauma in people's faces is plain to see. hospitals and shelters are completely overwhelmed. driving out of tokyo tonight at the height of rush hour, the traffic was amazingly light. we soon discovered why. all the gas stations are closed. at this highway rest stop, all we've seen are convoys of emergency vehicles , all of them heading north. many roads are impassable. train service in many parts of the country is nonexistent. four trains full of passengers are still missing, swallowed up by the tsunami. japan 's $5 trillion economy, the third largest in the world, has been staggered by the disaster. insurance losses are estimated at $35 billion and counting. and there is no price on the loss of loved ones. one woman picked through her devastated neighborhood looking for her mother. she notices a photo of one of her neighbors. it's too much for her. it's all flattened, she says. without the houses, i don't even recognize anything. there have been rare moments of relief, even joy. a mother reunited with her young daughter. and aid is now pouring in from all corners of the globe, desperately needed, as japan struggles to recover from a blow unlike any it has ever seen. sendai is known as the city of a thousand generations. brian, i think it's fair to say for a long time many generations of families will be sharing the story of the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 .

    >> lester holt on the ground in sendai tonight. lester, thanks.

msnbc.com news services
updated 3/14/2011 11:50:31 PM ET 2011-03-15T03:50:31

Japanese police say the official death toll from last week's massive earthquake and tsunami has risen to 2,414.

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Police said Tuesday that a big share of the deaths were in Miyagi prefecture, where 1,254 people are confirmed dead.

The number of people officially missing is at 3,118. But regional officials said they believe that tens of thousands may have been swept away by the tsunami that devastated a long stretch of Japan's northeastern coast Friday.

Millions of people were facing a fifth day without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures along the devastated northeast coast. Meanwhile, a third reactor at a nuclear power plant lost its cooling capacity, raising fears of a meltdown, while the Japanese stock market plunged for a second day.

On the coastline of Miyagi prefecture, which took the full force of the tsunami, a Japanese police official said 1,000 bodies were found scattered across the coastline on Monday. The Japanese news agency Kyodo reported that 2,000 bodies washed up on two shorelines in Miyagi.

While the official death toll rose, 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 said 10,000 people are estimated to have died in his province alone.

In nearby Soma, the crematorium was unable to handle the crush of bodies being brought in for funerals.

"We have already begun cremations, but we can only handle 18 bodies a day. We are overwhelmed and are asking other cities to help us deal with bodies. We only have one crematorium in town," said Katsuhiko Abe, an official in Soma.

In Japan, most people opt to cremate their dead, a process that requires permission first from local authorities. But the government took the rare step Monday of waiving that requirement to speed up funerals.

"The current situation is so extraordinary, and it is very likely that crematoriums are running beyond capacity," said Health Ministry official Yukio Okuda.

Friday's double-headed tragedy has caused unimaginable deprivation for people of this industrialized country that has not seen such hardships since World War II.

The outspoken governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, told reporters Monday that the disaster was "punishment from heaven" because Japanese have become greedy.

The quake, originally listed as a magnitude 8.9, was upgraded Monday to 9.0 by the U.S. Geological Survey. The change means that the quake was about 1.5 times stronger than initially thought.

In many areas there is no running water, no power and five-hour lines for gasoline. People are suppressing hunger with instant noodles or rice balls while dealing with the loss of loved ones and homes.

Disaster at a glance

"People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming," said Hajime Sato, a government official in Iwate prefecture, one of the three hardest hit.

He said authorities were receiving just 10 percent of the food and other supplies they need. Even body bags and coffins are running so short the government may turn to foreign funeral homes for help, he said.

"We have repeatedly asked the government to help us, but the government is overwhelmed by the scale of damage and enormous demand for food and water," he said.

Video: Coastal town washed away (on this page)

Fifteen foreign teams, many equipped with search dogs and heavy lifting equipment, are also helping, with the largest from Russia, South Korea and the United States.

Many hospitals have either been wiped out or damaged, slowing treatment for those injured as well as those already hospitalized before the tragedy.

The pulverized coast has been hit by several hundred aftershocks, including a 6.2 on Monday that caused a new tsunami scare. Abandoning their search operations, soldiers told residents of the devastated shoreline in Soma, the worst hit town in Fukushima prefecture, to run to higher ground.

Story: Satellite photos show devastation in Japan

Sirens wailed and soldiers barked out orders: "Find high ground! Get out of here!" Several uniformed soldiers were seen leading an old woman up a muddy hillside. The warning turned out to be a false alarm.

Search parties arrived in Soma for the first time since Friday to dig out bodies. Ambulances stood by and body bags were laid out in an area cleared of debris, as firefighters used hand picks and chain saws to clear an indescribable jumble of broken timber, plastic sheets, roofs, sludge, twisted cars, tangled power lines and household goods.

Helicopters buzzed overhead, surveying the destruction that spanned the horizon. Ships were flipped over roads, a half mile inland. Officials said one-third of the city of 38,000 people was flooded and thousands were missing.

'Now we have nothing'
"I'm giving up hope," said Hajime Watanabe, 38, a construction industry worker who was the first in line at a closed gas station in Sendai, about 60 miles north of Soma. Just then, an emergency worker came over and told him that if the station opens at all, it would pump gasoline only to emergency teams and essential government workers.

Video: Death toll rises amid Japan disaster (on this page)

"I never imagined we would be in such a situation" Watanabe said. "I had a good life before. Now we have nothing. No gas, no electricity, no water."

He said he was surviving with his family on 60 half-liter bottles of water his wife had stored in case of emergencies like this. He walked two hours to find a convenience store that was open and waited in line to buy dried ramen noodles.

The government has sent 100,000 troops to spearhead the aid effort. It has sent 120,000 blankets, 120,000 bottles of water and 29,000 gallons of gasoline plus food to the affected areas. However electricity will take days to restore.

Interactive: Japan before and after the disaster (on this page)

In the coastal town of Otsuchi, only a supermarket and a Buddhist temple remain standing amid a sea of devastation.

"It really doesn't get any worse than this — I've never seen anything so bad," said Patrick Fuller of the International Red Cross Federation. "It is feared that more than half the town's population is buried, he said of the city of 19,000.

"Otsuchi reminds me of Osaka and Tokyo after World War II," Tadateru Konoe, president of Japan's Red Cross, said as rescue workers swarmed over rubble, twisted metal and debris, some of it ablaze. "Everything is destroyed and flattened. This is a complete disaster. In my long career in the Red Cross, this is the worst I have ever seen." 

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Konoe's comments echoed those of Japan's prime minister, who on Sunday called the disaster "Japan's most severe crisis since the war ended 65 years ago."

Power outages, food shortages
At least 1.4 million households had gone without water since the quake struck and some 1.9 million households were without electricity. According to public broadcaster NHK, some 310,000 people are living in emergency shelters or with relatives. Another 24,000 people are stranded, it said.

One reason for the loss of power is the damage to at least three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. One by one, each reactor has lost the ability to cool down, the latest on Monday. Explosions have destroyed the containment buildings of the other two reactors.

Operators dumped seawater into the two reactors in a last-ditch attempt to cool their super-heated containers that faced possible meltdown. If that happens, they could release radioactive material in the air.

But Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the reactor's inner containment vessel holding the nuclear fuel rods was intact, allaying some fears. The containment vessel of the first reactor is also safe, according to officials.

Still, people within a 12-mile radius were ordered to stay inside homes following the blast. AP journalists felt Monday's explosion 25 miles away.

The U.S. 7th Fleet, which deployed ships and aircraft to Japan to provide relief, moved away from the coast after discovering low-level radioactive contamination from a plume of smoke and steam released during the blasts.

But the fleet said the dose of radiation was about the same as one month's normal exposure to natural background radiation in the environment.

More than 180,000 people have evacuated the area in recent days, and up to 160 may have been exposed to radiation after the first blast.

Also, Tokyo Electric Power held off on imposing rolling blackouts planned for Monday, but called for people to try to limit electricity use.

Edano said the utility was still prepared to go ahead with power rationing if necessary.

In Tokyo, 150 miles to the south, commuters and residents faced confusion and uncertainty on Monday over the supply of food and energy after the quake, with some store shelves emptied and many train lines shut down.

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In the largely residential Nerima district of Tokyo, staples like rice, bread and instant noodles were sold out. Lights were kept off on the produce shelves and meat refrigeration units to conserve electricity.

Many regional train lines were suspended or operating on a limited schedule to help reduce the power load.

Japan's central bank injected $184 billion into money markets Monday to stem worries about the world's third-largest economy.

Video: Japanese stocks slide in quake aftermath

Stocks fell Monday on the first business day after the disasters.

Japan's economy has been ailing for 20 years, barely managing to eke out weak growth between slowdowns. It is saddled by a massive public debt that, at 200 percent of gross domestic product, is the biggest among industrialized nations.

Preliminary estimates put repair costs from the earthquake and tsunami in the tens of billions of dollars — a huge blow for an already fragile economy that lost its place as the world's No. 2 to China last year.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Interactive: Japan before and after the disaster

These aerial photos show locations in Japan before and after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11. Use the slider below the images to reveal the changes in the landscape.

Explainer: The 10 deadliest earthquakes in recorded history

  • A look at the worst earthquakes in recorded history, in loss of human life. (The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsumani that affected eastern Japan is not included because the fatalities caused, about 15,000, are fewer than those resulting from the temblors listed below.) Sources: United States Geological Survey, Encyclopedia Britannica

  • 1: Shensi, China, Jan. 23, 1556

    Magnitude about 8, about 830,000 deaths.

    This earthquake occurred in the Shaanxi province (formerly Shensi), China, about 50 miles east-northeast of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi. More than 830,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Damage extended as far away as about 270 miles northeast of the epicenter, with reports as far as Liuyang in Hunan, more than 500 miles away. Geological effects reported with this earthquake included ground fissures, uplift, subsidence, liquefaction and landslides. Most towns in the damage area reported city walls collapsed, most to all houses collapsed and many of the towns reported ground fissures with water gushing out.

  • 2: Tangshan, China, July 27, 1976

    Chinese Earthquake
    Keystone  /  Getty Images
    1976: Workers start rebuilding work following earthquake damage in the Chinese city of Tangshan, 100 miles east of Pekin, with a wrecked train carriage behind them. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
    Magnitude 7.5. Official casualty figure is 255,000 deaths. Estimated death toll as high as 655,000.

    Damage extended as far as Beijing. This is probably the greatest death toll from an earthquake in the last four centuries, and the second greatest in recorded history.

  • 3: Aleppo, Syria, Aug. 9, 1138

    Magnitude not known, about 230,000 deaths.

    Contemporary accounts said the walls of Syria’s second-largest city crumbled and rocks cascaded into the streets. Aleppo’s citadel collapsed, killing hundreds of residents. Although Aleppo was the largest community affected by the earthquake, it likely did not suffer the worst of the damage. European Crusaders had constructed a citadel at nearby Harim, which was leveled by the quake. A Muslim fort at Al-Atarib was destroyed as well, and several smaller towns and manned forts were reduced to rubble. The quake was said to have been felt as far away as Damascus, about 220 miles to the south. The Aleppo earthquake was the first of several occurring between 1138 and 1139 that devastated areas in northern Syria and western Turkey.

  • 4: Sumatra, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2004

    Aerial images show the extent of the devastation in Meulaboh
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    MEULABOH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 29: In this handout photo taken from a print via the Indonesian Air Force, the scene of devastation in Meulaboh, the town closest to the Sunday's earthquake epicentre, is pictured from the air on December 29, 2004, Meulaboh, Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. The western coastal town in Aceh Province, only 60 kilometres north-east of the epicentre, has been the hardest hit by sunday's underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Officials expected to find at least 10,000 killed which would amount to a quarter of Meulaboh's population. Three-quarters of Sumatra's western coast was destroyed and some towns were totally wiped out after the tsunamis that followed the earthquake. (Photo by Indonesian Air Force via Getty Images)

    Magnitude 9.1, 227,898 deaths.

    This was the third largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and the largest since the 1964 Prince William Sound, Alaska temblor. In total, 227,898 people were killed or were missing and presumed dead and about 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 14 countries in South Asia and East Africa. (In January 2005, the death toll was 286,000. In April 2005, Indonesia reduced its estimate for the number missing by over 50,000.)

  • 5: Haiti, Jan 12, 2010

    Haitians walk through collapsed building
    Jean-philippe Ksiazek  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Haitians walk through collapsed buildings near the iron market in Port-au-Prince on January 31, 2010. Quake-hit Haiti will need at least a decade of painstaking reconstruction, aid chiefs and donor nations warned, as homeless, scarred survivors struggled today to rebuild their lives. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK (Photo credit should read JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

    Magnitude 7.0. According to official estimates, 222,570 people killed.

    According to official estimates, 300,000 were also injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged in the Port-au-Prince area and in much of southern Haiti. This includes at least 4 people killed by a local tsunami in the Petit Paradis area near Leogane. Tsunami waves were also reported at Jacmel, Les Cayes, Petit Goave, Leogane, Luly and Anse a Galets.

  • 6: Damghan, Iran, Dec. 22, 856

    Magnitude not known, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake struck a 200-mile stretch of northeast Iran, with the epicenter directly below the city of Demghan, which was at that point the capital city. Most of the city was destroyed as well as the neighboring areas. Approximately 200,000 people were killed.

  • 7: Haiyuan, Ningxia , China, Dec. 16, 1920

    7.8 magnitude, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake brought total destruction to the Lijunbu-Haiyuan-Ganyanchi area. Over 73,000 people were killed in Haiyuan County. A landslide buried the village of Sujiahe in Xiji County. More than 30,000 people were killed in Guyuan County. Nearly all the houses collapsed in the cities of Longde and Huining. About 125 miles of surface faulting was seen from Lijunbu through Ganyanchi to Jingtai. There were large numbers of landslides and ground cracks throughout the epicentral area. Some rivers were dammed, others changed course.

  • 8: Ardabil, Iran, March. 23, 893

    Magnitude not known, about 150,000 deaths

    The memories of the massive Damghan earthquake (see above) had barely faded when only 37 years later, Iran was again hit by a huge earthquake. This time it cost 150,000 lives and destroyed the largest city in the northwestern section of the country. The area was again hit by a fatal earthquake in 1997.

  • 9: Kanto, Japan, Sept. 1, 1923

    Kanto Damage
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images
    1923: High-angle view of earthquake and fire damage on Hongokucho Street and the Kanda District, taken from the Yamaguchi Bank building after the Kanto earthquake, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    7.9 magnitude, 142,800 deaths.

    This earthquake brought extreme destruction in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, both from the temblor and subsequent firestorms, which burned about 381,000 of the more than 694,000 houses that were partially or completely destroyed. Although often known as the Great Tokyo Earthquake (or the Great Tokyo Fire), the damage was most severe in Yokohama. Nearly 6 feet of permanent uplift was observed on the north shore of Sagami Bay and horizontal displacements of as much as 15 feet were measured on the Boso Peninsula.

  • 10: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Oct. 5, 1948

    7.3 magnitude, 110,000 deaths.

    This quake brought extreme damage in Ashgabat (Ashkhabad) and nearby villages, where almost all the brick buildings collapsed, concrete structures were heavily damaged and freight trains were derailed. Damage and casualties also occurred in the Darreh Gaz area in neighboring Iran. Surface rupture was observed both northwest and southeast of Ashgabat. Many sources list the casualty total at 10,000, but a news release from the newly independent government on Dec. 9, 1988, advised that the correct death toll was 110,000. (Turkmenistan had been part of the Soviet Union, which tended to downplay the death tolls from man-made and natural disasters.)

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