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Thousands still missing, millions short of power and water – and fear everywhere

As the Japanese struggle to cope with the tsunami's immediate impact, they are also living in dread of the nightmares that lie ahead. David McNeill reports

Like millions of other Japanese, Taka Ishii spends much of his time staring in disbelief at the TV and its nightly litany of suffering and chaos. Rolling power cuts, food and petrol rationing, the growing death toll and the constant threat of more aftershocks and tsunamis fill the screen before he goes to bed for a fitful sleep, always mindful that 150 miles from Tokyo, workers are struggling to stop a nuclear power plant from going into meltdown.

"We always say we're used to disasters, but there has never been one like this," says the middle-aged factory worker. "And we can never relax because of what is happening at the nuclear complex. What if it blows?"

The frantic attempts to prevent catastrophe at the Fukushima plant's reactors come amid the search for bodies and missing loved ones in what is emerging as a vast natural disaster. Thousands of corpses have been washing up along the Pacific coast, which was devastated by Friday's huge tsunami. More than 2,000 bodies were recovered from Miyagi Prefecture alone, instantly doubling yesterday's confirmed toll of 1,647 deaths and confirming fears that the final tally could be in the tens of thousands.

Nearly half a million people have been evacuated in Miyagi and surrounding prefectures, with thousands taking refuge in makeshift shelters. Water and power supplies remain cut off in about 1.5 million households. "The shops are running out of food so we're giving them water, bread as well as blankets," said Moto Otsuka, spokesman for the prefecture. "The main issue for most people is trying to contact their family members. Communications are still not working."

Messages from people looking for family members missing since last Friday have begun appearing in community centres, schools and government offices. "I can't contact my mother," said Norito Kurosawa as she scanned a bulletin board. She is taking refuge with 700 others in Miyagi's local government building. "I heard there was a landslide near our home and that she may have been caught up in it."

Refugees read newspapers and dozed as they waited for news of relatives. Some were visibly in shock: a girl clung to her mother's arm, crying and pleading to go home. "She is so scared of the aftershocks," said her mother, Fujita. "It's awful – there is no peace from this. It just goes on and on."

Survivors have been telling near- miraculous stories of how they managed to outrun Friday's tsunami. Hospital Worker Akira Onoda, 74, told Kyodo News that he was returning home after the quake alert when he saw the tsunami rushing toward him and sped in the opposite direction in his car. The muddy wall of water stopped metres from his home. "My house would have been destroyed if the tsunami was 10cm higher," he said.

In Minami Sanriku, a town of 17,000 swept away by the tsunami, survivors recalled how it devoured houses and cars. "It happened so fast," said one woman. "I watched it sweep up cars, houses, everything. There was no way to escape it."

Many cities have been forced to divert dwindling supplies and power to overwhelmed hospitals and community centres. Patients in the Ishinomaku Red Cross Hospital in Miyagi spill out into the corridors and halls, as doctors struggle to cope. On the floors and slumped in wheelchairs, elderly people have begun dying after being evacuated from the quake-and tsunami-stricken areas. With food and other supplies running out, panic-buying has also hit stores in Tokyo and other large cities. Around the country there are queues hundreds of cars long for petrol, which is being rationed in some places to less than 10 litres.

Thousands of schools have been closed and factories and businesses are operating reduced hours to save on power. Japan's Meteorological Agency is also warning that another large earthquake is likely in the next few days. Foreign workers in Tokyo have already begun leaving the capital, in some cases on the advice of their embassies.

"We can sit around staring at the rolling news and growing more anxious by the minute about a new earthquake, tsunami, nuclear threat, or we can do something about it and get away for a few days," said Australian Nicole Fall, who left Tokyo on Sunday night for Osaka, about 300 miles away.

Officials in many foreign embassies are also quietly sending their families out of the country. Some foreign companies are sending employees to the south of Japan until the level of the radiation leak can be assessed.

"My 19-year-old daughter was in our house in Yokohama at quake time. I eventually persuaded her to take the bullet train to Kyoto and she is staying in a cheap hotel there now," said Englishman Tom Gill, who teaches in a Tokyo university. "There could yet be an exodus if things get even more alarming at Fukushima." Families outside the 12-mile evacuation zone around the stricken plant say they are growing increasingly worried about the possibility of catastrophe.

"I just don't know what we should do," said Masazumi Chiba, who lives in Fukushima, about 30 miles from the plant. "We don't have the money to leave. We are just listening to the news and hoping this will all come right."

Experts believe the disaster will eventually emerge as one of the world's costliest.

Japan's central bank said yesterday that it will inject 15 trillion yen into the economy to stave off global concerns about the impact of the quake and the tsunami.

Japan is already saddled with one of the developed world's largest public debts and economists have already begun debating how the country will pay to recover.