Situation Grim in Japan's Devastated Northeast

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Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

Japanese survivors take refuge inside a make shift shelter at a school gym after their homes have been destroyed in Natori.

As Japanese and international rescue crews surge toward the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis zones in Japan's battered northeast, local conditions are very bleak. Given that nearly 10,000 people are unaccounted for in just one town, the death toll could conceivably reach the tens of thousands. Those who've survived the carnage are relieved, but frightened and anxious too — they fear for the lives of missing or unreachable loved ones and worry about what the future holds.

These are precisely the sentiments expressed by survivors in Sendai, one of the hardest-hit metropolises. Resident Yukiko Kono says she's worried about her parents' relatives in Kesennuma, a seaside neighborhood. "We haven't been able to get through to them," she says. "We're expecting the worst."

While electricity has returned to parts of the area, water is getting scarce. "An emergency water truck is parked at an elementary school," Kono says, "but we have to wait for hours in a long line." Meanwhile, roads are either badly damaged or closed, making vehicular transport practically impossible. "We have to walk or ride bicycles to get anywhere, so we can only carry small amounts of water back home."

Sendai's survivors are also worried about food. Long lines are forming at supermarkets, where, given the widespread loss of electricity, staff must use flashlights when working at night. With no refrigeration, perishable items are rotting. Shops are reportedly sold out of batteries, which is limiting people's ability to communicate via mobile phone. "I don't know how long my phone battery will last, so I really should go now," Kono explains in an apologetic tone.

Some residents are venting their frustrations online. "I have electricity, but the tap water is muddy," writes a woman in Sendai's Ichibancho district on Mixi, a social-networking site. "I heard that it will take about three weeks to get the gas line back. I can't shampoo or bathe, but everyone is suffering. I'm getting nervous, though, because it's hard to buy food. I feel like crying, but I need to be brave."

Japan is used to natural disasters and the Japanese are known for patience and dignity in times of crisis. This time is no different. "We're remaining calm here and volunteering to help those affected by the quake," writes a Sendai resident named Takeshi Kobayashi from an evacuation center in a junior high school. "We're trying our best to keep positive."

In Tokyo, where the damage is minimal, at least one family has decided to leave. Hans von Lewinsky, a German who works for a global consultancy in Tokyo, is departing for Hong Kong on Monday with his wife and three young children. He says he is not particularly worried about another earthquake, but is concerned about the risk of radiation from the crippled nuclear site in the country's northeast. "If there's no need for one to be here, then it would probably be a wise move to get the family out." As the country comes to grips with the scale of this disaster, survivors cannot be complacent.