RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan | The elderly couple fled their home on foot as the warning sirens blared. But they could not keep up with their neighbors and fell behind as the tsunami rushed in.
Nearly a week later, 71-year-old Taeko Kanno and her husband are still missing.
“I think there is no hope,” said Katsuo Maiya, Mrs. Kanno’s brother-in-law. “I can’t find them. The only thing I can do is wait until the military collects their bodies.”
As retrieving bodies increasingly becomes the focus of rescue crews in Japan’s northeast, it’s clear that Friday’s earthquake and tsunami - believed to have killed more than 10,000 - took their heaviest toll on the elderly in this rapidly aging nation, where nearly one in four people is over 65.
Many, unable to flee, perished. Survivors lost their daily medicines. Hospitals lost power and water. Sometimes, the consequences have been fatal.
Friday’s twin disasters also crippled a nuclear power plant in the northeast, adding to the region’s woes. Fourteen older patients died after being moved to a temporary shelter in a school gym because their hospital was in the evacuation zone near the overheating plant.
Two of the patients died in transit Monday and 12 more at the gym, said Chuei Inamura, a Fukushima government official. It took until Thursday to get all the remaining patients into other hospitals.
“We feel very helpless and very sorry for them,” Mr. Inamura said. “The condition at the gymnasium was horrible. No running water, no medicine and very, very little food. We simply did not have the means to provide good care.”
At least some international rescue teams ended their efforts Thursday, acknowledging there was little prospect left of finding missing people still alive.
“We have no more tasks,” said Pete Stevenson, a firefighter heading Britain’s 70-strong team. “The Japanese government have told us they are now moving from search and rescue to the recovery phase.”
He insisted their departure wasn’t related to any fears of radiation from the troubled Fukushima nuclear plant, which lies about 90 miles south.
Japan’s relatively large elderly population presents a particular challenge for rescue and relief in what is already a disaster of epic proportions.
About 23 percent of Japan’s 127 million people are age 65 or over, nearly double the proportion in the United States.
Japan’s rural areas have been in decline for years, and many of the small coastal towns hit hardest by the tsunami had seen an exodus of young people moving to cities for work.
Now the low-lying parts of those towns have been flattened, and as much as half the population in some may have been killed. The official death toll climbed over 5,300 Thursday and is expected to top 10,000.
Mrs. Kanno, the woman who couldn’t keep up with her neighbors, comes from one such town - Rikuzentakata, a port city that was home to 20,000 before the disaster.
When the tsunami surged into Rikuzentakata, her 67-year-old sister, Masako Maiya, rushed down from her home in the hills with her husband, Katsuo.
They only got as far as a bridge. Down below, they saw the town had become a muddy inland sea.
One of Mrs. Kanno’s neighbors told them she saw Mrs. Kanno and her husband flee, but the couple was slow and had lagged behind.
For five days, the Maiyas went from morgue to morgue, looking for the Kannos’ bodies. On Thursday, they decided to visit the site where their home stood.
“The house should be around here,” Masako Maiya said, stopping in front of a pile of splintered wood and mud.
A pained moan escaped from her husband’s mouth. “There’s nothing,” he said, taking off his glasses and wiping tears from his eyes. His wife began to sob too. Still crying, they turned and walked away.
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