MINAMI-SOMA, Fukushima Prefecture--Stragglers in deserted communities near the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant are being left without basic necessities and emergency services.
The coastal city of Minami-Soma is fast turning into a ghost town. It's population has shrunk from about 70,000 people before the March 11 earthquake to 20,000 people.
Those still in the city, many of whom are elderly or infirm, are having to fend for themselves because of badly coordinated disaster response measures and outsiders' fear of radiation, city officials say.
"The folks next door and across the street (have left). Everyone has left. And we are more than 30 kilometers away from the nuclear power plant," said a 74-year-old owner of a kimono shop in the city's shopping district. "It has become lonely here."
On Wednesday afternoon, the only merchant still open for business in the shopping area near JR Kashima Station was a gasoline station. The central Kashima Ward, once home to 11,000 people, now houses only 1,300 people.
Minami-Soma is suffering an acute shortage of relief supplies and, although much of it lies outside the official evacuation zone, has found itself subject to a virtual quarantine.
Tanker drivers have refused to make their rounds to deliver gasoline to Minami-Soma because of fear of radiation.
The city has been forced to assign city employees and citizens with heavy vehicle licenses to drive the tankers from outside the city boundaries into the town.
Food and other supplies have also been disappearing from supermarket and convenience store shelves because the city has been dropped from distribution routes. Many stores have been forced to close.
Hiroshi Suzuki, a farmer, said he had to drive 40 to 50 kilometers to the neighboring city of Soma to get supplies.
"Those who have evacuated must be full of anxiety, but those who have stayed behind are also very anxious," Suzuki said.
Since Tuesday, the city government has been renting space in a market in Soma as a depot for relief goods. From there, truckers hired by Minami-Soma transport the supplies to two evacuation centers in the city for distribution.
The problems have been further aggravated by confusion over government-imposed evacuation and safety zones.
Parts of the sprawling city fall within a 20-kilometer radius of the nuclear power plant, and are subject to evacuation. Another district falls in a 20- to 30-km zone where residents have been advised to stay indoors. The rest of the city, including its center, falls outside both areas.
Early in the crisis, Minami-Soma agreed to evacuate residents wanting to leave to Niigata, Gunma and Nagano and other nearby prefectures by bus.
Katsunobu Sakurai, mayor of Minami-Soma, said the central government's recommendation to stay indoors had caused anxiety.
"The message ended up creating an image that the area was dangerous. The government should have simply instructed those within 30 km to evacuate," Sakurai said.
"Since the central government's recommendation, even ambulances will not enter the area," Yukio Kanazawa, director of a Minami-Soma municipal hospital, said. While inpatients have been evacuated, the hospital has stayed open to care for patients with chronic illnesses remaining in the city.
Patients in critical condition are transferred from ambulances to Self-Defense Forces vehicles just outside the 30-km line.
"If told that the situation will continue for a few days, we may be able to hold out, but we have no clear prognosis," a city official said. "Those who remain are the ill and elderly. If they exhaust food supplies stocked at home, there will be people dying of starvation."
In Iwaki, in the southern part of Fukushima Prefecture's coast, officials unilaterally called on residents throughout the city to refrain from walking outdoors on March 15. Most of Iwaki falls outside the 30-km zone around the damaged nuclear plant.
Of the population of 340,000, an estimated 50,000 have already left, according to officials.
Masao Hashimoto, 63, who lives near the Iwaki Chuo interchange on the Joban Expressway, said many drivers who stopped to buy drinks at a vending machine in front of his home were voicing fears of radiation.
"The traffic has increased, particularly after Tuesday," Hashimoto said.
Eiji Suzuki, vice mayor of Iwaki, defended the decision to advise residents to stay indoors.
"It was raining on the 15th. There was no knowing what effects radiation could have. We thought that more confusion would result if countermeasures were different within and outside the 30-km radius line," Suzuki said.
A 64-year-old company executive living in the town was unconvinced.
"The central government says it's safe, and the city's stance sounds like it's not. Which is it?" he asked. "Nobody is going to deliver relief supplies to a city whose residents are abandoning it."
Almost half of the 6,100 residents of Iitate in northern Fukushima Prefecture have left.
Only part of the village falls in the 30-km radius, but high levels of radioactive cesium have been confirmed in soil and air samples from the village.
"Why did this (discrepancy) happen? What should we do? We have received no answers from the central government," said Iitate's mayor, Norio Kanno.
The village decided to evacuate residents who wished to leave. On March 19, 314 villagers boarded a bus for Kanuma, Tochigi Prefecture, followed by another group of 195.
"My husband said we should leave as there is no knowing what impact this might have on our children's health," said Kaoru Takahashi, 40, one of the evacuees.
Her husband and two other members of their eight-person household remain in Iitate.
"I worry about them," Takahashi said.
(This article was compiled from reports by Keiichi Yazaki, Takahiro Takezono, Tomoko Saito, Yoshihiro Tomita, Kaname Ohira and Atsuko Kawaguchi.)
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