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Snow muffles rescue work in Japan's devastated northeast


Rescue workers walk past a destroyed car during heavy snowfall at a factory area devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in Sendai, northern Japan March 16, 2011. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Rescue workers walk past a destroyed car during heavy snowfall at a factory area devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in Sendai, northern Japan March 16, 2011. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Kim Kyung Hoon and Chris Meyers

SENDAI, Japan (Reuters) - - Heavy snow blanketed Japan's devastated northeast on Wednesday, hindering rescue workers and adding to the woes of the few, mainly elderly, residents who remained in the area worst hit by last week's massive earthquake and tsunami.

In Sendai, once a city but now a water-logged wasteland, firefighters and relief teams sifted through mounds of rubble, hoping to find any sign of life.

But, like in most other towns, rescuers just pulled out body after body, which they wrapped in brightly colored blankets and lined up neatly against the grey, grim landscape.

"The strong smell of bodies and the dirty seawater make search extremely difficult," said Yin Guanghui, a member of a Chinese rescue team working in the battered town of Ofunato.

"Powerful waves in the tsunami would repeatedly hit houses in the area. Anyone trapped under the debris would be drown in no time, without any chance to survive."

Japanese media said at least two people were pulled alive from the rubble, more than 72 hours after the earthquake and tsunami struck. But rescue officials said the snow weakened what little chance they had of finding any more survivors.

"Snow has just come down in a blanket. Visibility is just 40 meters," said Patrick Fuller of the International Red Cross Federation from what remained of Otsuchi, a fishing hamlet.

"People are still working, the army is out here. But the fire service has taken off because they are worried they won't get back to their base because of the snow."

Officials estimate Friday's earthquake and tsunami have killed at least 10,000 people, with thousands missing.

Those who did survive lost everything they owned and now face shortages of food and water, no electricity or heating and frequent aftershocks -- some as strong as a magnitude -- that have rattled the country.

"STRESSED OUT"

The meteorology agency said temperatures could drop as low as -2 Celsius (28 Fahrenheit) in Sendai on Wednesday. Broadcaster NHK offered tips on how to stay warm -- wrap your trunk in newspaper and cling film -- and how to boil water using empty food cans and candles.

Rescuers said their main concern was for the elderly, who make up the majority of the scores of people packed into shelters.

"They are having a very tough time of it," said Fuller.

"They need regular medication and proper care. A lot of the problems, though, are psychological, people are so stressed out. They are getting three meals a day but probably more food needs to come."

In addition to their physical well-being, many elderly people at shelters were traumatized by what they had been through, and just sat huddled on blankets, waiting, but not sure for what.

"Right after the earthquake, I was told to evacuate as soon as possible. I couldn't bring anything but myself," said silver-haired Kiyoko Abe at a shelter in Ishimomaki, Miyagi prefecture.

Her husband sat smiling beside her, occasionally wiping away tears.

(Writing by Miral Fahmy; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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