March 27, 2011 5:46 pm

Stalled trains and fuel shortages hamper recovery

Nagaki Akama spent 12 hours queuing for petrol this past week. Twice. Late last week, the 65-year old taxi driver was waiting patiently for customers outside the train station at Matsushima, a tourist town in Miyagi prefecture.

But few came. Trains have not run – and the station has been closed – since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated the coast of the north-east Tohoku region, including many parts of Miyagi.

Many trains in Tohoku have stopped operating since the earthquake, while tracks are either checked for damage or repaired. Services on the famous shinkansen – the Japanese bullet train – have been halted on parts of the Tohoku line, which connects the region with Tokyo.

The disruption to train services would be less serious if petrol were readily available. But as Mr Akama’s situation highlights, the prefectures most affected by the tsunami – Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate – face severe shortages.

Across Tohoku, most petrol stations remain closed for large parts – or all – of each day. When stations open, there are already long queues of cars waiting to get the usual quota of 10 litres. In Miyako, a tsunami-hit town in northern Iwate, 175 cars formed a 1.6km line on Friday afternoon to get petrol at an Eneos petrol station. One woman at the top of the line said she had waited for three hours.

As far inland as Morioka, the largest city in Iwate, the situation is equally dire. Some garages will only provide fuel to cars with special permits – issued to rescue workers or those with special needs – while those that are open also require patrons to spend hours sitting waiting in their cars.

An official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said the fuel shortages were due to several reasons, including a lack of petrol tankers, damaged roads, and reduced capacity at ports such as Shiogama, just north of Sendai.

The official said the central government was asking oil companies to send supplies from western Japan and Hokkaido, the Japanese island just north of the Tohoku region, and added that the situation at Shiogama was slowly returning to normal, which would help alleviate the problem.

While the tsunami crippled much of the region, the acute fuel shortages are having knock-on effects that are hampering recovery efforts, including on companies trying to transport food to the region.

Mutsuko Kikuchi, an attendant at a petrol station in Tono, an inland Iwate town, said that although supermarkets were now better stocked than immediately after the tsunami, the overall situation was still tough.

“Shops are rationing food because not enough supplies are getting in,” Ms Kikuchi said.

Further east in the ravaged coastal town of Kamaishi, the deputy manager at Maiya supermarket said larger chains such as Maiya were gradually returning to normal. But Hiroshi Monta added that products such as milk, tofu and ready-to-eat meals were still being rationed.

Mr Monta said that many smaller shops and convenience stores – which are more easily accessible to people who cannot get petrol to drive to larger supermarkets – were also out of goods.

Compounding the problems for the people of Tohoku are the very cold weather and occasional snowfalls across the region, and the dramatic number of aftershocks that continue to hit Japan.

As Mr Akama sat in his cab explaining the plight in nearby Ishinomaki – where more than 2,000 have been confirmed dead – a magnitude 6.1 earthquake hits his hometown, violently shaking the vehicle. “This is normal now,” he said. “We’re used to it.”

Additional reporting by Michiyo Nakamoto in Tokyo

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