TOKYO, Japan -- Thousands of people living in Japan aren't waiting for a resolution to the increasingly dangerous nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor -- they're leaving the country now.
The United States also authorized the first evacuations of Americans out of Japan, taking a tougher stand on the deepening nuclear crisis and warning U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to any part of the country as unpredictable weather and wind conditions risked spreading radioactive contamination.
Senior State Department official Patrick Kennedy said chartered planes will be brought in to help private American citizens wishing to leave. People face less risk in southern Japan, but changing weather and wind conditions could raise radiation levels elsewhere in the coming days, he said.
Narita Airport was crowded Wednesday, even for a mid-week day. In the middle of the day, lines were long as travelers queued up to get out of the country. Flights to international destinations filled up fast.
Travelers said they either chose to leave Japan to escape the radiation risk or were forced to leave because their school or business shut down.
Due to increasing health and safety concerns, KING 5News has chosen to bring reporters Lori Matsukawa, Andrea Nakano, and our crew back earlier than scheduledfrom Japan.
Radiation is the concern at the forefront of people's minds, but life in general is also becoming difficult each passing day. There are still aftershocks and controlled power outages every day. The price of gasoline has skyrocketed and it has trickled down to transportation and commerce.
Shirley Suzuki of Snohomish convinced her parents to leave their business in Japan and stay with her for now.
They run a business and they said, 'Oh we can't leave our business,' and Isaid, 'Look, this has never happened in the history of Japan and you're not here, you can't run your business,' said Suzuki.
Ariana Fischer is being forced to leave because her University of California San Diego study abroad program shut down without explanation.
They haven't really told us what the rationale is whether it's radiation, the earthquake or they cut the program, said Fischer.
President Barack Obama placed a telephone call to Prime Minister Naoto Kan to discuss Japan's efforts to recover from last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami, and the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Dai-chi plant. Obama promised Kan that the U.S. would offer constant support for its close friend and ally, and expressed his extraordinary admiration for the character and resolve of the Japanese people, the White House said.
The decision to begin evacuations mirrors moves by countries such as Australia and Germany, who also advised their citizens to consider leaving Tokyo and other earthquake-affected areas. Tokyo, which is about 170 miles from the stricken nuclear complex, has reported slightly elevated radiation levels, though Japanese officials have said the increase was too small to threaten the 39 million people in and around the capital.
The Pentagon said U.S. troops working on relief missions can go within 50 miles to the plant with approval. Spokesman Col. David Lapan said the U.S. would review requests from the Japanese for assistance that would require troops to move within that radius, though no approval for such movement had been given since the stricter guidelines were enacted.
The Pentagon said troops are receiving anti-radiation pills before missions to areas where radiation exposure is likely.
With the arrival of three more ships to the massive humanitarian mission, there were 17,000 sailors and Marines afloat on 14 vessels in waters off Japan. Several thousand Army and Air Force service members already stationed at U.S. bases in Japan have also been mobilized for the relief efforts.
Airmen have been flying search and rescue missions and operating Global Hawk drones and U-2 reconnaissance planes to help the Japanese assess damage from the disasters. The operation is fraught with challenges -- mainly, figuring out how to continue to provide help amid some low-level releases of radiation from the facility, which officials fear could be facing a meltdown.
Weather also temporarily hampered some relief plans Wednesday. Pilots couldn't fly helicopters off the deck of aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan until late afternoon because of poor visibility. The 7th Fleet said 15 flights with relief supplies were launched from the eight-ship carrier group, about half as many as the 29 flights reported the previous day to deliver food, water, blankets and other supplies.
Several water pumps and hoses were being sent from U.S. bases around Japan to help at Fukushima, where technicians were dousing the overheating nuclear reactors with seawater in a frantic effort to cool them. The U.S. had already sent two fire trucks to the area to be operated by Japanese firefighters, said Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman.