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In Japan's Quake Zone There's Little Aid; Lots of Mud, Smell of Death

Sankei via Getty ImagesREPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

(MINAMI SANRIKU, Japan) -- Driving from the city of Sendai up the coast of Japan, the landscape changes quickly and abruptly from scenes of streets choked with traffic, mile long lines for gas, and hundreds of people waiting outside convenience stores, to a series of ghost towns, some still submerged by water.

It is eerily quiet and surreal.  Cars are deserted on the roadside, stragglers peddling on bicycles with small clusters of relief workers.  In parts, nothing but sludge and mud as far as the eye can see.

The air reeks of decomposing bodies, which cannot be collected until the waters recede.  In one destroyed home, it was clear a family had been living there -- a soccer ball, a Hello Kitty house and stuffed animals strewn among the rubble.

We came upon a neighbor returning home to survey the damage with her little girls.  She told us about how the tsunami swept over her car, pushing it off the road.  When we asked about the house next door, she began to weep, saying that someone there had died.

We were able to get about 10 miles from the fishing village, Minami Sanriku, which has been wiped off the map.  But every road we traveled seemed to be blocked off, either by debris or because of damage, and authorities told us that it was impossible to go any further because landslides had completely shut down the road.

All communication signals are down.

There is no power and it is getting dark, a frightening prospect for those survivors stranded in devastated houses with no electricity, no water, no food.  Only darkness and aftershocks, which seem to be happening every 15 minutes.

The isolation is in contrast with an impressive show of force in the port city of Sendai where firefighters from around the region have poured in along with other emergency workers.

But even Sendai is cut off to most of Japan.  A few miles north of Tokyo checkpoints prevent anything but official vehicles from traveling north to the quake zone along the Northeast Highway.

An ABC News team traveling with the Red Cross was allowed to pass because the vehicle was loaded with diapers, wet naps, and blankets collected at a Tokyo maternity hospital for delivery in Sendai.

The highway is empty except for civil defense vehicles, aid workers, fire trucks, and trucks laden with gear headed to the devastated area.  Flatbed trucks carry earthmovers, and drums of fuel.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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