Disaster in Japan: Out of the Rubble

updated 04/04/2011 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/2011 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A REUNION after FIVE DAYS

The Igari Family

Living less than eight miles from Fukushima Plant 2, the Igari family had to evacuate Narahamachi to avoid radiation. Armed with towels, blankets and a change of clothes, mom Kumiko, 35, took her three children, ages 6 to 10, to a refugee center hastily opened inside Tokyo's Ajinomoto Stadium. But a crucial family member insisted on staying behind: their dad, Makoto, 35. "I needed to stay for my town," says Makoto, a volunteer fireman. Posted to guard a local coast road rendered impassable by the tsunami, he encountered more ire than gratitude as he turned back people who wanted to look for family members. "In order to prevent a further disaster, I had to harden my heart," he says. Repeatedly his senior officer told him, "It's time to go back to your family," but Makoto refused until day five. Now he frets about less life-and-death matters-like whether his youngest, kindergarten disrupted, will be able to attend elementary school.

TAKING on the POWERS THAT BE

The Sato Family

For three days Katsunori Sato monitored news reports about the Fukushima nuclear plants and concluded it was safe for his family to stay put in Iwaki. "Prime Minister [Naoto] Kan said that it would have no effect on the human body," says Katsunori, 44. But when evacuation warnings sounded on March 14, he thought, "This is serious," packed his wife, Miyuki, and three children (ages 9 to 15) into their car and drove for three days until they arrived at the home of relatives they barely knew. "We couldn't possibly be there more than one night," says Miyuki, 43. "A family of five is too much." Katsunori, a karate instructor, marched down to the local branch office of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). Told to leave, he retorted, "We don't even have a place to stay tonight." His insistence secured his family a spot in their current shelter at a martial-arts center.

ONLY 10 BUT going on 40

The Kurosawa Family

All four Kurosawa children were quiet after the quake destroyed their apartment in Shirakawa. But since relocating to a Tokyo shelter, Kenji, 9, and 6-year-old twins Tsuyoshi and Yukihiro are back in high spirits. Not their older brother Takeo. Neither sleeping nor eating well, the 10-year-old boy sits in front of the shelter's TV and monitors newscasts. Newspaper items about radiation levels rivet his attention; so do his family's finances. When his parents hand out boxed lunches with $5 price tags, he tells everyone to make them last for dinner too. Another big-and understandable-change in Takeo's behavior: He hugs his parents often.

ELDERS WHO refused TO GO

The Suzuki Family

As the mainstay of his family's three generations, chiropractor Keiichi Suzuki wasted no time after the quake struck Iwaki, toppling buildings. He collected his wife, daughter, son (home from Tokyo on college spring break) and dog and delivered them to his son's apartment in Tokyo. Though the drive took four hours, Keiichi, 49, turned around and returned to Iwaki to collect his elderly parents, who proved more stubborn than shaken. "I am not going anywhere. I'd rather die on my tatami!" his father, Takeo, 79, said, referring to his carpet made of rice straw. For the next three nights, Takeo and his wife, Matsue, 75, slept in cramped quarters in an unheated school gymnasium. Finally on day four, Takeo agreed to let Keiichi transport him to a warm refugee center in Tokyo.

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