An awful realization is setting in for those trapped in the vicinity of the crippled Fukushima nuclear complex: People are afraid to help them.
Residents describe spooky scenes of municipal cars driving down near-empty streets telling people to stay indoors, but they've seen few other signs of outside help.
Aid agencies are reluctant to get too close to the plant. Shelters set up in the greater Fukushima area for "radiation refugees" have little food, in part because nobody wants to deliver to an area that might be contaminated. And with little or no gasoline available, not everyone who wants to leave can get out.
Radiation fears mingled with a sickening sense of abandonment Wednesday.
"People who don't have family nearby, who are old or sick in bed, or couldn't get gasoline, they haven't been able to get away from the radiation," said Emi Shinkawa, who feels doubly vulnerable. Her house was swept away by the tsunami.
Her daughter, Tomoko Monma, knows she's lucky: At 9 a.m. Wednesday, she piled her family into the car, thankful for her husband's foresight in setting aside enough gasoline for them to make their escape.
But she's angry that people living outside the 12-mile evacuation zone around the nuclear plant weren't given help finding public transportation or the gasoline to drive away in their own cars. Monma lives 21 miles from the plant.
"We've gotten no help. We've gotten no information," said Monma, 28, who sat cradling her thumb-sucking 2-year-old daughter on the tatami mats that had been laid out in a sports center in Yamagata, 100 miles inland, which now serves as a shelter for people fleeing Fukushima.
"The government is demanding that we don't go out, but it isn't bringing us anything," Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of a city close to the exclusion zone, complained in an interview with the national NHK television network. "Truck drivers don't want to enter the city. They're afraid of being exposed to radiation…. If the government says we're in a dangerous area, it should take more care of us!"
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned American citizens Wednesday that they should move at least 50 miles away from the Fukushima plant, which is leaking significant amounts of radioactivity. That warning is significantly stronger than the Japanese government's warning to keep 12 miles away.
Foreign aid workers in the area have been assessing the radiation risks, but many chose to remain just outside the 12-mile zone Thursday morning.
Casey Calamusa, a communications officer with Federal Way, Wash.-based World Vision who is coordinating the operation in Tokyo, said a three-member team went to Fukushima on Wednesday to distribute supplies such as water, blankets and diapers at an evacuation center. The team was equipped with protective masks and suits and stayed outside the exclusion zone, he said.
"They were playing it pretty safe. They were talking to local authorities and letting them know we wanted to help the evacuees," Calamusa said. "There is an imperative to help those people — they've had to leave their belongings behind and they're staying in shelters in near-freezing weather."
Officials at Westport, Conn.-based Save the Children were still trying to decide Wednesday whether to dispatch staff to Fukushima, weighing information from the Japanese government and their member group, Save the Children Japan, said spokesman Lane Hartill. The group already has staff responding in Tokyo and the northern city of Sendai.
"This is a first for us. We are a humanitarian organization — we don't know this. We're not nuclear physicists. We want to be able to protect our staff and to help people and their children," Hartill said.
The Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) plant, which opened in 1971, had been a good neighbor in many ways, providing jobs and subsidizing kindergartens, parks and community centers to gain residents' acceptance. Increasingly, those same neighbors are feeling betrayed.
Naoki Nanno, 30, who spent two years as a construction worker on the plant's reactors, complained that Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant's operator, had been too slow in disclosing the problems that have mounted over the last few days. When one of the explosions occurred Monday, at the No. 3 reactor, Nanno was on the telephone with his brother.
"I heard a loud bang and I suspected it was an explosion at the nuclear plant, but they didn't announce it for another 20 minutes are so. There was radioactive material leaking after that explosion — we should have known about it right away," said Nanno, who lives 25 miles from the plant.
Takahiro Kori, 30, lost his house to the tsunami and barely escaped with his life: He could see the giant wave in his rear-view mirror as he sped away. After moving from shelter to shelter in Fukushima, each one with barely any food, he arrived Wednesday in Yamagata.
"I'm disgusted by the whole thing," Kori said.
"We were told our whole lives that the nuclear plant was safe," he said. "They told us even if there is a big earthquake or tsunami, it will never collapse. It all turned out to be lies."
For Japanese, the desperation has an added dimension: Already the name "Fukushima" is laden with something beyond the fear of damaged health.
The Japanese survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lived the rest of their lives with the stigma of having been exposed to radiation, a stain that years never erased. Known as Hibakushas, they are formally recognized by the government if they lived within proximity of the blasts, and receive a special medical allowance.
But the designation also led to them being ostracized by other Japanese, who feared wrongly that the contamination was contagious or could be hereditary. The result was that many survivors of the bombings, and even their children, lived ghettoized lives because of their exposure to radiation.
The prospect of a similar stigma now worries some of those in and around the Fukushima plant.
"I am worried about the future, " said a 65-year-old retired engineer from Sugagawa City, 30 miles from the plant, who was interviewed by phone and didn't want his name used.
"There could be some rumors that the people from this area are contaminated by radiation, and that people should not get close to us."
Times staff writers Ralph Vartabedian and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Los Angeles contributed to this report.