Sakura, Japan (CNN) -- Residents of northern Japan streamed south from their earthquake-stricken hometowns Saturday, crowding stores in search of vital supplies as rescue teams worked north toward the historic quake's epicenter.
Roads and buildings showed cracks as far away as 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Sendai, the closest city to the epicenter. One man told CNN the scene in towns hit by the quake and the resulting tsunami was "unimaginable."
Shoppers were polite but tense as they sought food, water and gasoline from stores, where shelves were quickly emptied and pumps soon ran dry. A slow, steady line of cars trickled south from the disaster zone as people either left the area or shuttled to the stores, many of which were without power and had broken glass scattered down the aisles.
Japan's major highways, large sections of which are elevated, have been closed since the magnitude 8.9-quake struck off the northeastern coast Friday afternoon. Automobile traffic crawled on smaller, two-lane roads as power outages left the sleek, electric-powered "bullet trains" -- shining examples of Japan's advanced technology, usually capable of speeds nearing 200 mph -- sitting motionless on their tracks.
Closer to the heart of the disaster, collapsed phone lines and towers left communications spotty. Roads and airfields were washed out by the tsunami; rescue workers headed to the stricken region had to rely on helicopters.
Video from Sendai showed people trapped in the second floors of homes, waving sheets of white cloth in hopes of drawing rescue workers. Residents who have been able to call out reported gas and water were unavailable for a radius well beyond the city of about 1 million.
In Minamisoma, a city about 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of Sendai, all that was left of many structures were their foundations. Only concrete and steel buildings appeared to have withstood the wash. No people were visible in the streets of the town, whose population on Friday had been 70,000.
The quake and resulting tsunami left behind hundreds dead by early Saturday, and that number was expected to climb sharply.
Tokyo, about 370 kilometers (230 miles) from the epicenter, was spared major damage from the quake. But power outages and highway closures paralyzed the city as its transit network was shut down.
Commuters who usually pack the city's subways and suburban trains in the city of 13 million tried to flag down taxis, hitch rides or walk home. The roads leading out of Tokyo were clogged by traffic jams that trapped some drivers for up to six hours.
CNN's Paula Hancocks contributed to this report.