LOS ANGELES – Nancy Niijima switched on the TV in her room at the Keiro retirement home to see images from her native country of submerged neighborhoods, cars being carried in giant ocean tides, collapsed buildings and cracked roads.
"It's like science fiction, not like what really happens in Japan," said Niijima, who is concerned about her sister in the Okinawa island chain, whom she has been unable to reach. The good news is that she has no family near the hardest-hit areas.
In the Los Angeles area and other U.S. regions with large Japanese-American and Japanese expatriate populations, those with ties to the Asian country expressed shock at the damage wrought by the 8.9-magnitude quake and fear for the safety of their loved ones there.
They also grew frustrated with their inability to reach family and loved ones back in Japan, normally not an issue in such a technologically advanced nation where the Internet and cell phones provide numerous ways to communicate with people in the U.S.
"I tried calling my sister in Japan, but all the phone lines were jammed," said Misa Washio, a clerk at a counter selling pens in a Kinokuniya Japanese language bookstore in New York City, who learned of the quake from a friend early Friday and quickly switched on the radio. "I tried about 10 times."
The quake, the largest that Japan has experienced in recorded history, struck when it was 1 a.m. in New York and 10 p.m. in California. Doug Erber, president of the Japan America Society of Southern California, said his office has been fielding a constant stream of queries from people who have not been able to reach friends and family in Japan.
"The phone has not stopped ringing, and text messages and e-mails," he said. "It's been a busy day just trying to keep up. I think I got about 45 minutes of sleep last night."
Erber's organization had added a special section to its website with links to resources that could help users track down loved ones in Japan. These included services by Japan's biggest mobile phone providers that allow users to input friends' phone numbers to access messages posted about them.
The site also links to Google's Person Finder service for the Japan earthquake, where users can ask for and provide information about individuals in Japan they've been unable to reach.
Google spokesman James Yood said many of roughly 17,000 entries on the site by midafternoon Friday were from the United States, although he did not know how many.
Erber said his group is also soliciting donations for the Red Cross' response to the disaster, while in New York, the Beholders Group humanitarian group was gearing up to help earthquake-hit communities.
Beholders member Taty Sena said she had been trying to reach people and organizations in Japan to offer assistance, but that that the apparently overloaded communication circuits wouldn't let her messages through.
"Nothing worked — not the phones, or Skype," she said. "And I didn't get any replies on e-mail."
At Mitsuwa Marketplace, a Japanese grocery chain store in the Southern California city of Torrance, many of the Japanese-born shoppers and workers said they were also still trying to reach loved-ones to make sure they're safe.
Michi Hirose, 54, who is from Tokyo but has lived in California for years, said she was finally able to reach her husband, who is in Japan. However, she remains worried about a number of relatives she has been unable to reach.
Naomi Takara, 76, another of Keiro's mostly Japanese-American residents, said her biggest concern was for the Tokyo-area-based headquarters of her church. She feared the nearly 100-year-old wooden building may not sustain even the weakened tremors in the area more than 200 miles from Sendai.
But Takara said she had failed to reach the church staffers to make sure they and the patients they care for in church complex's health building were safe.
"It's frustrating and you get over-concerned because you don't know what's happening," she said. "I was getting panicky. The Japanese people don't get panicky, but I did."
Associated Press writer Noaki Schwartz in Torrance and Verena Dobnik in New York contributed to this report.
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