Return to Transcripts main page


Special Report From Japan: Quake/Tsunami Aftermath; Nuclear Crisis

Aired March 19, 2011 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Hello. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta with a very special edition of SGMD from Japan.

We're now in Tokyo. And I can tell you, just over the last several hours, we are still feeling aftershocks here. There was a big earthquake -- people know about this -- one of the largest ever recorded in history, magnitude 9.0.

Remarkably, there wasn't as much damage to the buildings from that earthquake as you would expect. The building codes here in Japan are a very high standard. And as a result, you can see many of the buildings, certainly, in the capital city are still standing behind me.

But it was that tsunami wave -- again, the images that people have seen for so many days now, that tsunami wave that has wreaked so much havoc. We were there on the northeast coast where so much of the destruction happened. And we will bring some of the stories of what we have seen there.

But, most recently, now, concerns about radiation leaking -- damage to one of the nuclear power plants. As a result of those radiation levels, we have been hop-scotching around the country, measuring radiation levels, even wearing something like this -- a personal dosimeter which I'm going to explain here in just a little bit.

This is a special edition of SGMD. We are going to bring you the stories of what's happening here and tell you what we've learned and answer your questions.

Let's get started.


GUPTA: Well, immediately after landing in Japan, we started to make our way north -- to the northeast part of the coast. And I can tell you, immediately, what we saw was shocking.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You can hear those sires on the background just north of Sendai, you immediately get a scope of the damage that was done by the earthquake and the tsunami and also just how logical it is in some ways as well. For example, on this street, you can see a relatively normal-appearing building on one side. And then over here, you see a car that's obviously been destroyed by the tsunami, and another normal-appearing building.

But here's where it gets very strange. All of a sudden in the middle of the street, seemingly coming out of nowhere, you had this house. It just seems dumped right here in the middle of the street and if you go over here and start to get a look inside, you get a sense of remembrances of what this life was like for the people who get here -- kids' books on the ground scattered, a jigsaw puzzle over here, some kids' toys as well. If you look inside you see the clothes and drawers still. You see little mementos on the walls such as a Donald duck, a ping-pong paddle.

This is a life just immediately abandoned, immediately left as a result of this devastation. And this is just how strange, how weird it is to look at the aftermath.


GUPTA: Now, one thing that happens after earthquakes, as you might imagine, are aftershocks. I've seen this in so many places around the world. It'd be unnerving. The earth just starts to shake around you.

And with those aftershocks become increased concerns about more tsunamis. That's what can happen. People start to panic. They become anxious. Sirens start to go off. And we saw this firsthand.


GUPTA: I'm trying to listen, Anderson, to what they are saying here. And so, we are going to move at this point. It seems like official warnings now coming in as opposed to citizens being frightened. So, we are going to make a move.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": All right. Go to higher ground, Sanjay. We'll check in with you. Try to get us on the phone once you get to higher ground.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We freaked out. We just jumped in the car. Lots of official vehicles going by with sirens running saying a tsunami was coming and people were running. We don't know if they are valid or not. But we are going to try to get to higher land. They seemed pretty official. So, we need to go higher, guys.


GUPTA: I can tell you, after watching that, that we were fortunate. Despite the fact there were sirens going on literally all night in the next day, there was no second tsunami. So, there's a little piece of good news in there.

But you watch those images, you see those cars that have been tossed around. The question that came to mind and maybe yours as well is: how could anybody survive that? It's what I wanted to know. So, in Shiogama City, we went to one of the largest trauma hospitals, one of the hospitals that took care of the most patients after the tsunami wave came in. And we saw how a hospital like this operates in the middle of a disaster zone.


GUPTA (voice-over): The images are tough to watch, but as I learned, the stories are even harder to hear. You see those cars being tossed around like toys? Well, this man Hiaboshi (ph) was in one of them and he lived to tell about it.

(on camera): So, you were looking at your windshield and saw the water coming?

(voice-over): He tried to escape but it was too late.

"Over and over I was hit," he said, and then his car flooded. He was slowly drowning. And so, he tried to smash the window with his right hand. Finally, he got the car to open, but the water pinned the door back on his hips and his leg.

Mr. Hiaboshi doesn't know how he was saved. The next thing he remembered was pulling up in an ambulance to Saka Hospital.

(on camera): Well, as you might imagine, triage is a big deal at a place like this. Here at Saka Hospital, they basically categorize patients in the four categories immediately. That green if it was a relatively minor injury. Yellow if it was more serious. Red if it was very serious. And black if the patient had died.

When Mr. Hiaboshi came in, he was considered a red.

(voice-over): Critically injured, his life was now in the hands of Dr. Takanori Sasaki (ph).

(on camera): So, it's important to point out, Dr. Sasaki has been here since Friday. He never left the hospital since the earthquake occurred. He's been taking care of these patients as head of the emergency room.

(voice-over): Day after day, Saka Hospital stayed open with Dr. Sasaki in charge, taking care of hundreds of patients.

In Japan, near drownings and cardiac arrests are the most common serious injuries seen, followed by head and crash injuries.

(on camera): Now, Dr. Sasaki has been here since Friday. And I want to give you an idea of just how busy the busiest hospital has been after the earthquake and tsunami, 600 patients seen here over the last several days, 79 patients, remain, 13 patient have died.

(voice-over): Watching Hiaboshi closely, it is clear he is haunted by what happened to him. The tsunami robbed him of just about everything. In fact, you are looking at all he has left. Then, a rare smile and he tells me in disbelief, I am still alive. (END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: I don't think I'm going to be forgetting Mr. Hiaboshi soon. I mean, just look at the mental and emotional impact this has had as well. Up and down the northeast coast, a lot of retirement communities there. So, people who are affected by this tended to be older people, retirees.

You know, he was holding up his cell phone and it was broken. And he essentially lost all of his contacts. And as a result, he's simply not going to be able to get in touch with people -- his family, his friends. It's just so sad and so daunting still what lies ahead for him.

That's going to be the focus, I think -- replacement of the folks back in their communities over the weeks and months ahead.

Coming up next on SGMD: We are going to be talking about this radiation leakage, what exactly is happening there. We've been out here on the ground and seeing it firsthand and even measuring it ourselves with devices like this, a personal dosimeter.

Also, you had lots of questions, understandably so. We're going to try to answer as many as we can.

Stay tuned with SGMD.



SANJAY: This is a little bit of an example of Japanese efficiency and just how they are making this refugee camp work. They are using the swimming pool for water. They are using the water for the toilets, for bathing. But they have created a line -- a long one from the swimming pool all the way out here, people literally handing buckets off one to the other to try to get water to places where they need it most.

So, if you come out here and take a look, you can see literally all these volunteers have come together and created this long line of volunteers to make this all happen.

In a time that we were here in this refugee camp, you immediately got a sense of just how people are working together to try to accomplish these tasks. They have no idea how long they are going to be here but they want to make sure they can take care of their basic needs.


GUPTA: Just an example there of people coming together -- really a water brigade there to try and to find one of the most basic necessities, water.

And we are back with SGMD, reporting to you from Tokyo. The scene there was in Shiogama City. From there, we went to Sendai. We went to Akita, Japan. We have been traveling all over the country. Now, we're finding ourselves in Tokyo.

You know, the water from the tsunami had barely receded when people started to hear about danger: radiation. I want to tell you a little bit about what exactly happened.

Now, the trouble spot that we are talking about is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. What we know is the tsunami knocked out back- up power. Without that power, the six reactors lost the ability to cool themselves. Engineers became desperate, they pumped in seawater, corrosive seawater, and that caused the build-up of radioactive steam which subsequently had to be released or vented.

But there were lots of other problems: fires and explosions. We don't have a full picture. But we can tell you this: radiation has shown up outside the plant.

We know that at one time, just 50 workers risked their lives staying behind to try and prevent a complete meltdown. And even they were evacuated for a short time before they returned.

Officials have told other workers and everyone else living nearby to get themselves out.

Now, I know people are extremely concerned about this. And I want to tell you a little bit about what you need to know. First of all, when talking about the radiation levels, the way that they are measuring it is with something known as millisieverts. That's looking at the amount of radiation absorbed and it's looking at the type of radiation and figuring out what the damage, potential damage, or health effects on the body.

We know at one point, the levels around the plant got up to about 400 millisieverts in particular. And just to give you some context, just walking around, living your life, you get about three to four millisieverts. Get a chest X-ray, you get a few more millisieverts. A CAT scan, a few more.

The point is that 400 millisieverts is obviously very high. Well, that was just inside the plant area as that radioactive particles start to disperse, those levels start to go down.

Now, a lot of people have been wearing something like this. This is a personal dosimeter. It gives you some idea of how much radiation you have been exposed to since you've been wearing it and also will alarm if you're suddenly exposed to high amount of radiation.

We are here in Tokyo now as I mentioned. Radiation levels have been measured in this area. And they are about 20 times higher than normal.

Now, to hear that is going to be frightening to a lot of people. But keep in mind that even that is not harmful enough or high enough to be harmful to human health. Now, I know that for a lot of you, that may leave more questions than it does answers. So, we'll try to get to them. That's coming up on SGMD. Stay with us.


GUPTA: And we are back with a very special edition of SGMD from Japan.

We have been traveling all over the country, the northeastern coast of Sendai, looking at the survivors of the tsunami. There's been lots of concerns recently about radiation. We have been talking about this but we know there are a lot of questions about it as well.

We are in Tokyo now. I'm going to answer a few of your question.

This one comes from a reader. River Steuter asked this, "Is it far too early to comment on the long-term or even short-term damage of radiation that will be result of the Fukushima disaster?"

Well, it's a great question. I think it's a question that are on a lot of people's minds. And the short answer is yes. At this point in time, it is probably a little too early to tell.

What we can say is that there is some radiation assessment currently being done in Japan. So, you got air assessments being done all around the air. You get levels that come back for example here in Tokyo. They said yesterday, the levels were 20 times normal. Still very low but 20 times higher than what you'd normally expect.

We need to know the total dose of the individual to assess properly. Now, this is one of the reasons people are wearing this. You may have seen this already, a pocket dosimeter, something I can wear. It tells me how much radiation I have been exposed to and will also give an alarm if the radiation around me is suddenly gets too high. That's one way people can take sort of personal precautions to something like this.

The workers at the plant -- they are the ones who are currently really getting the highest dose of radiation. There's modeling of just how much radiation they are getting. But it's safe to say that it's much, much higher than even outside the plant and certainly kilometers away like we are.

It's unclear exactly how much radiation they are getting. It's unclear exactly what the short-term and long-term effects on their health are going to be. And it's unclear exactly how much radiation is going to be released in the atmosphere over the days, weeks and months to come. And that's part of what we're trying to answer your question even better.

Let's get to a second question now. This one comes from a CNN blogger. The question is: "Can you wash away radioactive particles?"

Like I tell you, the short answer to this question is yes. Now, that may surprise a lot of people. But, in fact, you can wash away a lot of these things.

First thing you need to do is if you've been exposed, simply remove your clothes, that's what you need to do, place them in a bag, toss those clothes away, burn them.

Shower, shampoo your hair. Soap and water really does help do the trick in terms of getting some of this off of your skin where it can potentially penetrate. But again, a simple answer to your question it is possible to watch radioactive particles. And that's part of the advice that's being given right now.

Even as of today, there's a lot of questions that are unanswered and a lot of the history here that is still unwritten.

Along with my colleagues, Anderson Cooper and Soledad O'Brien, we have traveled all over the world, covering disasters like this. I have spoken to them about specifically what they have been seeing and some of their impressions about what's been happening here.


GUPTA: Even with these terrible cold conditions, I mean, there are search and rescue missions going on right now, Soledad. I mean, you saw some of these firsthand. What was that like?

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, the self- defense forces going around with these big long poles basically to poke at the rubble and to see if they can start finding any bodies. Sometimes, people bring them and say my family lived here. Sometimes the smell that we all know from disasters that we have covered that starts to emit and you think, oh, this is a smell of a human body decomposing. It's what brings them to the scene.

So, yes, even in these terrible conditions, they'll be out there working. But it's very slow. You don't get a sense that there's even a grid system or a plan of attack to get to people fast as possible should there be anybody left under the rubble.

COOPER: Well, also, this rubble, because it's tsunami rubble, it's not necessarily earthquake rubble, it's in huge piles. I mean, 10, 15 feet thick, deep. So, you can be walking along the top of it and have no idea what's underneath you or if there's people are under you.

So, unless they have heavy earthmoving equipment and unless they have cadaver dogs, you know, poking around with sticks -- it's going to be very slow going before they really figure out the total death toll.

GUPTA: You know, it's interesting, because in Japan, it just seems so much more organized than places that we've seen around the world, most recently Haiti. How has it compared for you with respect to things like, just search and rescue and other things?

COOPER: Well, I mean, you know, in Haiti, as we all know, we didn't see any Haitian police or government officials actually doing anything for a long time and -- involved in search and rescue operations we didn't see in those early days Haitian police out searching for people. Here, you know, you have 100,000 of the Japanese soldiers, the nation self defense force out searching. Perhaps not most efficiently, but they are out there, officials who are very responsive to the needs of people.

You see water distribution already going on, food distribution. It's not ideal, there are huge shortages. But at least there's an infrastructure and a very well-developed infrastructure.

O'BRIEN: I think the culture is also so different. You know, I had people who seem very -- who had just lost their family members, lost their parents and who would say very calmly, so what should we do? We do not know what to do. Weren't screaming, weren't yelling, and I think you had a sense of people, you know, just overwhelmed and maybe panicking even more is a sense I got in other disasters I've got covered.

Well, here, I think there's that same sense of panic, but it's very quiet because they're asking us what to do. You know, then, they really are not getting any information officially from the government officials even though, for example, where we were yesterday, the roads had been cleared and the debris piles had been moved up to the side and now, they're 10 feet high and very organized -- there wasn't a sense of, OK, here's the plan for this community.

GUPTA: Right. You know, one thing I think it's sort of striking is there's a lot of retirement communities up and down the coast. So many more older people than we saw in Haiti or saw in Pakistan. We're obviously here covering the story.

But we know that after a period of time, people are going to start losing interest. They're going to move on to other things. What do you think happens here in Japan, Anderson, over the next several weeks and months?

COOPER: Well, I mean, I think in past earthquakes here, in the Kobe earthquake, they rebuilt very, very quickly. I was talking to somebody who lives there who said, you know, within six months they had started new construction.

And so -- I mean, I think -- look, Japan is very well organized. I think they're going to move very quickly.

But it's not just the tsunami and the earthquake. You now have this nuclear disaster, which is clearly taking resources, clearly taking, you know, and understandably so, time and attention of government officials who would probably be paying attention to tsunami relief. Instead, they're focusing on this very, you know, clear life and death situation. And so, there's no telling the impact that's going to have long-term and on the relief efforts.

GUPTA: Yes. And I know as much as we don't -- obviously, this isn't about sort of millions of people who are living in this country.

Soledad, I mean, has this nuclear -- all the talk about that -- has that worried you? I mean, does that change how you're approaching this story?

O'BRIEN: You know, I think that CNN does these things really well. So, I think we're so organized and really thoughtful about it. I don't go into situations where I feel very unsafe. And I feel, you know, good about what we're doing and I think we have to be here to continue to tell that story. Otherwise, people do lose their focus and their attention.

And the nuclear issue is so important at this point. It's changing literally minute to minute.

GUPTA: Yes, and it's amazing how much uncertainty there is with this particular issue. I mean, even among the experts, the people are literally saying to us, we just don't know what's going to happen. So, thank you both very much . I appreciate it.

And we have much more SGMD right after the break.



GUPTA: We are back with a very special edition of SGMD from Japan -- trying to answer your questions, trying to bring you the stories of what's happening here.

And that's really so important. I mean, I think so many people have been watching these images for so long. It can -- some people have become desensitized to it, they tell me.

Keep in mind that there are real stories behind all of those images -- people in those cars, people in those buildings, people in those homes. And up and down the northeast coast of Japan, so many retirement communities. So, the people who are affected were often elderly, people who are already vulnerable in many ways to health risks.

And even as we speak now, search and rescue missions are underway in a very, very cold, sometimes snowy northern part of Japan. This is the reality facing so many people on the ground today. That is what they're worried about. They are simply worried about their survival. They are worried about getting basic necessities like food and water.

And despite the fact that there's been goodwill from other citizens here in Japan and really all over the world, simply getting those supplies to the people who need it can be an extremely daunting task. Looking at those roads, trying to travel from point A to point B -- all of that can be very challenging. So, many people are going without here in Japan.

Obviously, the radiation concerns continue to mount. What exactly will happen with those nuclear reactors? And what does it mean for people living in Japan and around the world? We'd tried to give you some answers today. We'll certainly try to continue to investigate and bring you more answers as we get them.

Thanks for watching a very special edition of SGMD from Japan. We'll have much more CNN right after the break.