By Amy Zimmer
DNAinfo News Editor
MANHATTAN — New York's Japanese community is mobilizing to provide assistance in any way they can after a massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami rocked the northeast part of the country.
"This morning, I was thinking, I have to do something," Chikako Ichihara, organizer of the JapananTown Festival that started two years ago to celebrate Japanese culture and food, said on Friday.
She was still reeling from the news but already began making a list of Japanese organizations in New York to contact to discuss possible fundraising events.
"I'm kind of devastated. I haven't been able to reach my brother yet," she said, explaining that he lives near Sendai, the closest main city to the epicenter. "We have not had this kind of an earthquake before."
According to reports, up to 300 bodies have been found in Sendai and another 350 people have been reported missing. The numbers are expected to increase. A large waterfront area near the city is on fire. Japan's Kyodo News Service reported an estimated 70,000 people being evacuated to shelters in the Sendai area.
People have been swept away in boats, cars and homes.
The Japanese government declared a nuclear emergency and ordered nearly 3,000 people evacuated as a precaution after the earthquake shut down a nuclear plant's reactors and caused problems with its cooling system, according to reports.
Authorities will release a slightly radioactive vapor to ease the pressure at the disabled plant in Onahama City, roughly 170 miles northeast of Tokyo. Agencies said the vapor will not affect the environment or health and that no radiation is leaking from the plant.
A meltdown could, however, allow radiation to escape in a situation that could be worse than the Chernobyl nuclear reactor catastrophe of 25 years ago, ABC news reported.
Hiroto Tanaka, who moved to New York nine years ago, was up at 3 a.m. trying to call his family who lives in Chiba near Tokyo Disneyland. He wasn't able to reach them, but his mother eventually emailed him telling him they were okay, though half their house has been flattened. He bought a plane ticket to go home on Saturday for four days.
"I was so scared," said Tanaka, 29, who works at the city's oldest Japanese grocery, Katagiri, on East 59th Street near Third Avenue. "I want to see my family and be there with them. Everything is broken," he said making a flattening gesture. "I heard that Disneyland is broken." His father's office building in Japan had its windows blown out and its foundation shifted, causing the building to break apart, he said.
The Japan Society, on East 47th Street, launched a "Japan Earthquake Relief Fund," which will send 100 percent of tax-deductible contributions to organizations that directly help victims, and has information on its website about how to contact and find people in Japan.
"Japan Society extends its heartfelt sympathy and deepest condolences to the people of Japan who lost loved ones in Friday’s earthquake and tsunami," Motoatsu Sakurai, president of Japan Society said in a statement. "While programming at Japan Society will proceed as planned, our thoughts and prayers are with those in Japan who suffered in this tragic natural disaster."
Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall's executive and artistic director, said Friday the Carnegie Hall's citywide JapanNYC festival of music, theater, dance and art, will go on as scheduled on Monday, but Mayor Bloomberg later opted to cancel Monday's events.
Kodo, an internationally acclaimed Japanese performing arts ensemble, will be performing at Asia Society, on the Upper East Side, on Monday night in advance of the group's Mar. 20 Lincoln Center show.
"We are dedicating Kodo's Monday program at Asia Society to the victims of the earthquake in Japan," said Asia Society Director of Performing Arts and Cultural Programs Rachel Cooper. "We know that in this tragic time, the example of Kodo and its commitment to the shared humanity of the arts and Japanese culture, brings us together to share the solidarity and compassion that we all need at this sad time."
Chikako Ichihara said she had to turn away from the television, unable to bear the sight of destruction, especially in a region with so much farmland and fisheries.
Even though she is based in New York, she has close ties to food producers in Japan, recently working with 80 food companies from Japan in organizing the Japanese pavilion at the International Restaurant & Foodservice Show of New York.
Ichihara said she was able to get in touch with some of her clients in Tokyo.
"They couldn't get home because the trains are not working so they stayed in their offices, but they're okay," she said.
Train service was stopped in central and northern Japan, including Tokyo, and hundreds of flights were cancelled, according to reports.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that anyone who wants to donate money to help Japan should call 311 and do so through the Mayor's Fund.
"Nature's pretty powerful," Bloomberg said. "The biggest nuclear bomb, all the bombs together don't add up to all the energy of something like a big earthquake - something like that."
Della Hasselle and Jill Colvin contributed reporting.