The 45-year-old teacher said his family was safe. But his best friend's parents were missing. With a gasoline shortage, his professor friend couldn't travel the 150 miles to the region himself. So he asked Onodera to search for him, which he had been doing unsuccessfully for three days.

Onodera ticks off the shortages: fuel, water, phone service, electricity, kerosene, food.

"It's been a week, and there's still been no government help," he said. "This is the best they can come up with? What the hell are they doing?

"My biggest anger is when government workers arrive in suits," he said. "I'm a mess; look how we're dressed. They're not thinking, they're not clever."

In contrast, when a major earthquake hit China's Sichuan province in 2008, a round-the-clock stream of aid vehicles and citizen volunteers brought tents, blankets and food to hard-hit countrymen.

But in almost any natural disaster, those most affected tend to think their government isn't moving fast enough. Then too, Japanese officials have also been battling the related crisis at the stricken nuclear power plant.

"I don't think on Day 6 of Hurricane Katrina things were going more smoothly," said Neil Joyce, a volunteer physician from the Santa Monica-based civic group International Medical Corps, which had opened an operation in Sendai, the afflicted region's major city, two days earlier. "If you look at this point after the Haiti earthquake, people were screaming: 'Where is the water?' It takes a while to get your ducks in a row."

Even so, there are relatively few trucks and emergency vehicles evident on highways headed for the worst-hit areas.

At the Natori City Hall, Chizuko Nakajima, a government worker in the senior citizen department, watched a resident yell at her colleagues over the slow pace in rebuilding roads and other basic infrastructure.

Much of the mayor's time is spent in meetings, she said, rather than conferring directly with the displaced. "They might yell at him in frustration if he did," she said.

Hiroyuki Arate, a telephone industry worker struggling to restore mobile service this week, said more than 1,000 people were homeless in the Kesennuma area, including some being housed at a mountaintop refugee center.

"It's cold. They don't have electricity, power, water," he said. "They can't use the toilet. There are also no phone signals, so people have not been able to contact their worried families."

"I've never experienced war," he added. "But this is what it must be like. It's hell."

Photos: Japan grapples with crisis

mark.magnier@latimes.com

barbara.demick@latimes.com