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Japan quake aftershock raises anxiety

About 450,000 people are left without power

By Jay Alabaster and Tomoko A. Hosaka
Associated Press / April 9, 2011

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ICHINOSEKI, Japan — Shoppers emptied store shelves, traffic snarled after stoplights lost power, and drivers waited in long lines to buy gasoline in a new wave of anxiety yesterday after a 7.1 magnitude aftershock struck disaster-weary northeastern Japan.

Nearly half a million homes were without electricity after the latest tremor, which dealt another setback for those struggling to recover from the earthquake-spawned tsunami that wiped out hundreds of miles of the northeastern coast last month and killed as many as 25,000 people.

“I feel helpless. I am back to square one,’’ said Ryoichi Kubo, 52, who had just reopened his gas station in hard-hit Iwate Prefecture after the power outage and prolonged fuel shortage that followed the March 11 tsunami. Yesterday, he was again without electricity, his four gas pumps shut down.

Three people died in Thursday’s aftershock, the worst since the day of the massive 9.0 magnitude quake. The latest tremor largely spared the nation’s nuclear power plants, and there was no sign of fresh problems at the troubled Fukushima Daiichi plant, which has been spewing radiation since it was swamped by the tsunami.

Power remained out yesterday across much of northern Japan, including areas far inland, and homes were without gas and water. Gasoline was again scarce.

Convenience stores sold out of basics such as water and snack foods, and supermarkets were rationing purchases.

In Ichinoseki, 240 miles northeast of Tokyo, lines of 30 or more people formed outside the Marue supermarket when it opened at 9 a.m. With power out, each customer was escorted through the aisles by an employee with a flashlight and a pad who jotted down the price of each item.

“I’m so tired. I just want to buy some chocolate,’’ said Yuka Sato, 27, who waited in line with her neighbors.

Most local businesses were closed. Restaurant owner Suzuki Koya, 47, bought a small gas stove and made a free meal for locals in a big, boiling pot.

“I saw the meat at the supermarket, and I thought, ‘We should do a hot pot,’ ’’ he said. “It’s good to keep warm in times like these.’’

About 450,000 households were still without electricity last evening, said Souta Nozu, a spokesman for Tohoku Electric Power Co., which serves northern Japan. That includes homes in prefectures in Japan’s northwest that had been spared in the first quake. With power lines throughout the area damaged, it was not clear whether normal operations would resume.

Several nuclear power plants briefly switched to diesel generators when the aftershock hit, but they were reconnected to the grid by yesterday afternoon. One plant north of Sendai briefly lost the ability to cool its spent fuel pools but quickly got it back. Several diesel generators had problems, though they did not cause any cooling-system disruptions.

At a plant in Onagawa, some radioactive water splashed out of the pools but did not leave a containment building, Tohoku Electric said. Such splashing is not unusual. Those killed by Thursday’s quake were a 79-year-old man who died of shock, a woman in her 60s who lost power to her oxygen tank, and an 85-year-old man whose cause of death was not specified.

Many bodies from last month’s tsunami have still not been found, and many were probably swept out to sea and never will be. But as radiation from Fukushima Daiichi has dropped, police have fanned out to look for those who may have died inland.

Yesterday, hundreds of police used their hands or small shovels, recovering four bodies in an hour from one small area in the city of Minami Soma. They had found only five bodies the previous day.

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