Nightly News   |  March 12, 2011

Scale of Japanese disaster reveals grim equation

The first lifelines are finally being lowered into the sea of mud and despair, and while the rescue efforts are heroic, they are dwarfed by the sheer scale of the catastrophe. NBC’s Lee Cowan reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> good evening. right about now people here in japan are starting to ask themselves how much worse can things get? struck yesterday by one of the largest earths ever on record. and now this. forced to flee from p aa path of a radioactive leak. in the disaster zone itself, along the east coast , rescue efforts have been complicated by damage to a nuclear power plant . and there is late word of an emergency involving a second reactor in that complex. hundreds of bodies have been spotted along the coast. it is estimated the death toll here could reach 1,000. local news agencies report in one community alone, 9,500 people are unaccounted for. we have a lot to tell you here tonight. we want to start with nbc's lee cowan who has the latest.

>> reporter: the first lifelines are being lowered into a sea ofdespair. the rescue efforts are cut by the sheer scale of the disaster. nowhere near the hands to offer. grim equation that is forcing those lucky enough to survive, into a terrible limbo. hundreds lining up for food and water that is available as survivors look at the list of the dead.

>> i have people that i haven't been able to contact. and i'm concerned about their safety.

>> reporter: add to it all, a nuclear accident . think explosion after the quake damaged a building housing a reactor causing a radioactive leak and the evacuation of a 12-mild radius. official officials say the risk of a full-scale meltdown did not appear eminent. japan's quake was the world's fifth largest on record. and the wall of water that followed -- was unrelenting -- and indiscrimnant. it took everything in its path. ships once resting at anchor were toss ed into the chaos including an oceanliner that has yet to be found. railcars met the same fate the whereabouts of their passengers unknown too.

>> but, the first it started shaking and something was different. straight away. me and my co workers looked at each other and realized this was a big one.

>> this is what the tsunami looked like from inside the airport at sendai. the japanese minister got a look at the join's raw power . gauged by the amount of real estate that it swallowed. once a modern city, those yellow buildings are key buildings and hospitals. this is what it looks like now. a toxic brew of mud, oil and debris. more than half the population, nearly 10,000 people remain unaccounted for. fires from ruptured gas and oil lines continue to burnout of control. painful irony here is that water is everywhere but at least one million homes have gone without drinking water since the quake struck. roads and bridges remain largely unpassable. one barrier after another. rescuers and aid workers have to contend with as the flood of internation international aace international aastance begin to crawl to where it is needed most.

>> reporter: there is word there is a second emergency in the second reactor. it seems to be that it is more of a problem with the cool ant malfunctions again. we don't know how that will effect evacuations underway there.

>> thank you very much. we want to talk more about that. japanese officials say they have kal cau lighted that 160 people have been exposed to radio activity . 160,000 people