Image: gasoline line in Tokyo
Hiroaki Ono  /  AP
A gas station worker tells drivers who camped out overnight Wednesday that no fuel is available in Ichinoseki in northern Japan. Physical destruction and harsh, snowy conditions have created a severe fuel shortage in the country.
By Reporters
msnbc.com
updated 3/17/2011 6:32:07 PM ET 2011-03-17T22:32:07

Rescue and recovery efforts after the nuclear disaster in Japan are being stymied by a nearly overwhelming array of obstacles, as government and aid groups struggle with the physical devastation of last week's earthquake and tsunami, the specter of radiation dangers and harsh weather conditions.

"The huge challenge for the aid workers on the ground is just the operating conditions they are dealing with," said Kirsten Mildren, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "Search and rescue workers are saying they've never seen anything like this."

Mildren said the tsunami that followed last week's magnitude 9.0 earthquake "took everything in its path. … The level of destruction is just monumental and you've still got flooded areas, and now on top of that you've got this rain and this snow."

The need in Japan is extreme, the United Nations reported. The nearly 45,000 refugees crowded into 2,444 shelters don't begin to tell the story: Tens of thousands of other residents have been forced from the area. About 1.6 million households are without water in 12 prefectures. Temperatures are below freezing in much of the area. Anxiety is rising over radiation leaks from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors.

Children sleeping on cardboard
"Our staff in Sendai went to one of the evacuation centers and said that kids were sleeping on the ground in near-freezing temperatures on nothing but pieces of cardboard because there were no beds and they had no blankets, they had no warm clothing," said Casey Calamusa, a spokesman for World Vision, an international humanitarian organization that is working in Tome,  north of Sendai.

Emi Sakai, 28, of Perth, Australia, said in a telephone interview from Tokyo that her sister had been unable evacuate from her home about 25 miles from the Fukushima plant because there wasn't enough fuel and her baby boy had a high fever.

"She was almost crying," said Sakai, who is visiting her parents. "… There's nothing they can do. They just want to get out, but there's no way to get out — the flight is fully booked, and there is no gas to come back here.

Story: U.S. to help Americans leave Japan

"We still haven't lost hope yet, but it's really a tough situation, honestly," said Sakai, adding that she planned to try to help her sister and her family escape by using an online tool that gives real-time data about which gas stations have fuel and how long the wait is for it.

"Everyone is so depressed really and the TV news is heartbreaking."

Disaster at a glance

Four big obstacles

Government and aid organizations identified four major obstacles that were combining to serve as nearly insurmountable roadblocks:

• Physical destruction "is just monumental,"  Mildren said.

Francis Markus, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Japan, said the country had entered "uncharted territory" because of damage unparalleled in living memory.

"They haven't experienced a disaster of this kind," Markus said. Japanese are "used to having very destructive earthquakes, but the damage that was wrought by the tsunami is much more than the earthquake in this case."

• Lack of fuel, created by the difficulty of getting supplies to the neediest areas and aggravated by hoarding, is "throwing a spanner into everything," Markus said.

"In many places, the shops are empty and there's nothing to buy because there is no fuel to deliver it," he said.

Mildren, the U.N. spokeswoman, said search and rescue teams were able to get around largely only on foot because "you've got a fuel shortage and you've got a lack of transport and cars up there."

Japan relief efforts hampered by fuel shortage

Yukio Edano, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, urged consumers elsewhere in the country to "stop panic buying of fuel" to help free up desperately needed supplies.

International fuel assistance began taking shape Thursday, when South Korea said it would redirect some of its liquefied natural gas products to its neighbor. A spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry said China would ship 3 million gallons of gas and an equal amount of diesel oil at the Japanese government's request.

S Oil Corp. of South Korea said it would also boost its deliveries of oil products by more than 29 million gallons.

• Harsh winter weather is complicating an already difficult relief effort, making it so "you can't get to certain areas," Mildren said.

U.S. military officials said relief supply missions flying from the USS Ronald Reagan off the coast have been were curtailed because of wind and snow.

The USS Constellation, based in San Diego, was able to fly only three missions Wednesday, far fewer than had been expected, NBC station KNSD of San Diego reported.

Overall, the Chancellorsville and two other ships attached to the USS Ronald Reagan carrier group off the Japanese coast have been able to deliver only 8 tons of bottled water, cereal, milk, juice, fruit, medical supplies, clothing and blankets, said Thom Moore, the vessel's command master chief.

• Radiation fears have not only triggered a no-fly zone around Fukushima, further complicating transportation, but are also forcing rescue workers to take extra precautions that slow deliveries even more.

Quake risk at nuclear plants

"Obviously, people have to travel a certain route to get up to the north because if they're in Tokyo, they have to go around the no-fly zone," said Mildren of the U.N. humanitarian affairs office.

Cmdr. Joe Cahill, commanding officer of the USS Preble, one of the ships attached to the Ronald Reagan group, said that a helicopter assigned to the Preble tested positive for radioactivity after apparently getting too close to Fukushima, but that the contamination was cleaned up. The crew is "safe and healthy," Cahill said, but the relief mission is having to take extra measures to monitor radiation levels.

The U.S. military said it was sending a stockpile of potassium iodide tablets to Sagami, Japan, to treat U.S. military service members and civilians who have been exposed.

Americans not giving as much
To make matters worse, some contributions to relief agencies are trickling in more slowly than they have in previous disasters, said Una Okonkwo Osili, director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Osili said that as of Thursday, six days into the relief effort, Americans had contributed about $66 million to aid organizations operating in Japan — barely a quarter of the $228 million they had donated six days after last year's earthquake in Haiti.

The faltering U.S. economy plays a role in Americans' reduced giving, but so do the insular nature and relative wealth of Japanese society, Osili said in an interview with Tamron Hall of MSNBC TV.

Numerous nonprofit groups were already in Haiti working on long-term economic development when the earthquake hit near Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010. They needed only to shift resources and personnel already on the ground to focus on disaster relief.

By contrast, few Western nonprofits were working in Japan before last month. Simply getting there and setting up facilities "makes it difficult for them to start relief operations and then to raise money," she said.

Another hurdle is the lack of clear guidance about the nature and scope of the need.

"The uncertainty's probably a bigger factor than we realize," Osili said. "In this case, there's a lack of information about how to support the Japanese people."

John Schoen and Al Stirrett of msnbc.com and NBC station KNSD of San Diego contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: China, S. Korea send much-needed fuel to Japan

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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Map: Japan earthquake

  1. Above: Map Japan earthquake
  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  3. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Timeline Crisis in Japan

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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