Tropical Storm Songda Hits Japan Region Still Reeling From Earthquake and Tsunami

Tropical Storm Songda interrupts work at devastated Fukushima nuclear reactor.

TOKYO, May 30, 2011 — -- Heavy rains and strong winds battered the northeast coast of Japan Monday as Tropical Storm Songda touched down on a region still reeling from a massive earthquake and tsunami, triggering mudslides and widespread flooding that forced the operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactor to suspend outdoor work.

The storm was downgraded from a typhoon Sunday afternoon but has still brought significant rain and winds. In the city of Ishinomaki in the Miyagi prefecture, the Japan Meteorological Agency said winds clocked in at more than 70 miles per hour.

For residents of the Tohoku region, the area hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake -- Japan's worst natural disaster -- there was an eerie sense of deja vu. The magnitude 9.0 quake -- and the tsunami that followed -- killed more than 24,000 people and triggered a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Power plant, where the reactors remain unstable nearly three months later. On Monday, powerful waves spilled onto the port of Miyako as people watched in awe. In the town of Minamisanriku, the Japanese Coast Guard was called in once again to airlift two men stranded at sea when the engine for their boat died.

East Japan Railway Co. suspended train services on the Tohoku line, prompting long queues for taxis outside train stations.

In neighborhoods throughout the region, heavy rain turned roads into rising rivers. High water levels stranded cars on the roads, and residents were seen banding together to push drivers to safety. For cities such as Ishinomaki and Sendai, flooding has been a constant occurrence since the March 11 earthquake, an earthquake so powerful, it pulled Japan out to the ocean and lowered it. The elevation in Ishinomaki alone dropped nearly 3 feet.

The result has been daily flooding at high tide. Residents had urged the city to build an embankment to keep the water out as the rainy season approached, but nearly three months after the disasters, resources have been stretched thin. Survivors with homes are considered the fortunate ones.

Monday afternoon, in the first major storm of the season, water washed out roads in Ishinomaki neighborhoods, adding to the misery.

"I feel like we're living in the middle of the ocean," an elderly woman told broadcaster NHK. "I wonder how much longer this will last."

Tropical Storm Songda forced Fukushima plant operator Tepco to suspend outside work for the day, amid worries about safety. Days earlier, the utility said it was not properly prepared for the impending storm. Workers sprayed "anti-scatterings," such as synthetic resin, around the crippled reactors to prevent the winds from spreading radioactive material, an increasing concern as Japan enters the height of the rainy season.

Rising levels of radioactive water is also a source of anxiety. Tepco said it would monitor water levels inside the reactors closely to make sure water doesn't spill out as a result of rainwater seeping in. Tepco said the water in the basement of one of the six reactor buildings rose by nearly 8 inches in 24 hours -- to nearly 20 feet.