Observer tells of struggle to flee town near Fukushima plant

Radiation tests in Koriyama on March 15. Photo posted on Flickr by italo_pol.
 
On March 16, the mayor of a little-known town in north-east Japan sent out a desperate message: “I would really like to appeal to the world: we need help.” His town, Koriyama, is 50 km west of the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. With living conditions getting harder by the day and concern over radiation growing, more and more people are scrambling to get out.
 
According to Masao Hara, Koriyama’s mayor, the town is now housing over 9,000 refugees from the evacuated zone directly around the power plant (over 200,000 people have been evacuated from a 20-km radius). Most are in makeshift emergency shelters, including a baseball stadium.
 
Hara told reporters the town lacked everything: fuel, heavy and light oil, water and food. “More than anything else, we need fuel because we can't do anything without it. We can't stay warm or work the water pumps," Hara said, adding that soon the city would no longer be able to collect its garbage.
 
Citizens are offered radiation scanning, conducted at a stadium by doctors wearing anti-radiation suits. Authorities are also preparing to provide them with iodine pills, a preventive treatment for radiation sickness. Other countries, however, are taking even further precautions, warning their citizens to leave the area altogether.
 
 
 
 
Koriyama city centre on March 16. Video posted by KyleFehrJapan on YouTube.
Contributors

“People are left to evaluate the risk by themselves, and decide what to do”

James Hou, a Taiwanese-Canadian designer and blogger, has lived in Koriyama with his Japanese girlfriend for the past two years.
 
My girlfriend and I decided to leave Koriyama two days ago because we were too concerned with the health risk posed by radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant, which is about 50 kilometres away from the town.
 
The situation in Koriyama had become very difficult: it was freezing cold, and there were shortages of everything: no food in the stores, no fuel, almost no bottled water. To make matters worse, Koriyama is in a sort of intermediate zone: too far from the plant to be evacuated but near enough for residents to be offered free radiation tests and told to stay indoors as much as possible.
 
 
Empty shelves in a Koriyama supermarket on March 14. Photo posted on Flickr by James Hou.
 
“If you’re told to stay indoors, you assume it’s because outdoor air isn’t healthy”
 
What bothers me is how little information or assistance we were given: people were left to evaluate the risks for themselves, and decide what to do. During the first days following the quake, people wanted to believe there was no major risk. But if you’re told to stay indoors, you assume it’s because outdoor air isn’t healthy. And do you really want to wait for a test to tell you if the radiation level in your body is abnormally high?  
 
“It was a nightmare to get out of the city”
 
When we eventually did decide to leave, it was a nightmare to get out of the city. We couldn’t get fuel to drive a car, many roads were damaged by the earthquake and the one highway leading to Tokyo is constantly jammed with traffic. We ended up taking a taxi who charged us a fortune to get to the nearest Shinkanzen [Japanese express train] station. As we neared the station, the traffic kept getting denser and denser, until it slowed to a crawl. The trip took over three hours when it usually takes one. Thousands of people were trying to get onto trains headed to Tokyo and further south. Fortunately, we were able to board a train and go to Koshigaya, a city about 80 km north-east of Tokyo, where my girlfriend’s sisters live.
 
Stuck in traffic on the way out from Koriyama, on March 15. Photo: James Hou
 
Now things are getting even worse in Koriyama: more and more people are deciding to leave, and it’s getting even harder to find a seat in a train, or even a way to get to the station. I think my girlfriend and I avoided the worse of the rush, but if things don’t get under control at the power plant, it's going to be chaos."
 
 
 
Koriyama after the March 11 earthquake. Photos: James Hou
Post written with France 24 journalist Lorena Galliot.
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