Tsunami Evacuees Struggle to Rebuild Lives From Shelters

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Eleven days after Japan's worst earthquake and tsunami ravaged the country, the sound of cranes lifting cars and saws cutting through mounds of twisted metal and trees signal a step forward for the hard-hit northern region of the country.

Despite the progress, however, thousands remain missing, perhaps washed away forever while their homeless loved ones try to rebuild their lives from evacuation shelters.

In the coastal town of Kamaishi, 458 of the 40,000 residents died when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the town. The city's main roads are back open and crews are moving in to clear the debris.

Progress on the streets means little for evacuees inside one of Kamaishi's six dozen shelters. Toshi Sasaki, 81, was airlifted to Kamaishi city after flooded roads made it impossible for her to reach the shelter. Her home, located on higher ground, survived the tsunami but her brother-in-law and her granddaughter's husband was washed away, leaving Sasaki's 3-month-old great-granddaughter without a father.

"There are no words," Sasaki said. "We keep saying we must stay strong. We keep saying that."

Sasaki spends her day wrapped up in blankets and huddled around a stove at the Kamaishi evacuation center. While her home might be intact, memories of huge waves swallowing up homes -- water racing through the streets and washing away her loved ones -- continue to haunt her. She's too afraid to return to her home.

Sasaki is among the 430,000 people displaced by the quake. More than 9,000 people have died from the tsunami and 13,261 people are missing. Police estimate the death toll will surpass 18,000.

In the small fishing village of Taro, 300 are confirmed dead and a 1,000 people are still missing. The village only has a population of 3,000.

While Sasaki struggles to care for her great-granddaughter, another evacuee, Toshiko Kikuchi, remains desperate to find her husband, Takayuki.

"There's still a chance. I believe he got out," Kikuchi said. "He could be in an evacuation center somewhere. That keeps me going."

Kikuchi's husband was the only one at home the day of the March 11 earthquake. Kikuchi and her son, 21, have searched through every evacuee list, at individual shelters. They have gone line by line, reading the descriptions of bodies found in the city. The two planned to visit every hospital today in search of Takayuki.

Japan Forced to Bury Dead

Kamaishi officials face their own struggles: how to bury all the bodies, a number growing by the day. Spokesman Yutaka Sasaki said that the city would have to forego standard cremation procedures in Japan, and begin burying the dead, with approval from family members.

"The city of Kamaishi has been turning to other crematoriums for help, but we just can't keep up," he said.

In the same prefecture, but a town further north, a similar story plays out.

The high school in Otsuchi is now home to 600 people. Officials running the shelter said it could be weeks or months before evacuees can move out into temporary housing and begin the process of rebuilding their lives.

Hiromitsu Sasaki came up from Tokyo to look for his family. On Sunday, he found his niece's body washed ashore. Now he looks every day for his sister.

"I will stay until I find her," he said.

Residents with baskets bundled on their backs try to salvage what they can from their collapsed homes.

"I knew her, she's dead," one woman said as she gazed at a photo album. "I should take this to her family."