- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2011

NATORI, JAPAN | A month after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, the challenges seem as daunting as ever: Thousands are missing and feared dead, tens of thousands have fled their homes, a leaking nuclear plant remains crippled, and powerful aftershocks keep coming.

Vast tracts of the northeast are demolition sites: The stuff of entire cities is sorted into piles taller than three-story buildings, around which dump trucks and earth-movers crawl. Ankle-deep water stagnates in streets, and massive fishing boats lie perched atop pancaked houses and cars. The occasional telephone poll or bulldozer is sometimes the only skyline.

Two strong aftershocks have killed people and sunk thousands more households into darkness, while also delaying progress on restoring power to those in darkness since March 11.

Over this destruction and deprivation, the fear of radiation hangs. The tsunami knocked out power at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, and reactors have been overheating since.

Progress in stabilizing the complex comes slowly most days, or not at all, as the new tremors and radiation repeatedly halt work. Monday’s aftershock briefly cut electricity to the plant and halted work while technicians took cover but did not endanger operations, according to officials.

The government, meanwhile, added five communities Monday to a list of places people should leave to avoid long-term radiation exposure. A 12-mile radius has been cleared around the plant already.

“I am speechless over the uncertainty that our people must face each day,” said Yuhei Sato, the governor of Fukushima province, which is home to the plant.

“Once we get over one mountain, we just see another rise up in front of us,” Mr. Sato told reporters minutes after communities across the northeast marked the moment the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck.

At 2:46 p.m., sirens wailed, and firefighters and soldiers removed their hats and helmets and joined hands atop a small hill in Natori that has become a memorial. The clatter of construction equipment ceased briefly as crane operators stood outside their vehicles.

The disaster is thought to have killed more than 25,000 people, but many of those bodies were swept out to sea and may never be found. Others lie near the nuclear plant, where radiation has slowed recovery efforts. So far, more than 13,000 deaths have been confirmed, while 13,700 names are still on the missing list.