Science, Tech & Environment

Tsunami hits Japan after quake

By Mary Kay Magistad

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Japan has seen its share of earthquakes. But it's never one seen as powerful as this. The quake that hit Japan on Friday was one of the largest ever recorded. It sent a tsunami across the Pacific, all the way to the west coast of the United States. In coastal Japan, the wave swept far inland, carrying with it cars and houses — some on fire. Japanese police say hundreds of bodies have washed up on shore near Sendai, the city closest to the quake's epicenter, and the death toll is expected to climb.

Roland Buerk, a reporter with the BBC, experienced the quake in Tokyo, some 250 miles southwest of the epicenter.

"The ground rolled and rumbled and shook underfoot," Buerk said, "and you could hear great skyscrapers creaking and cracking as they swayed."

Some footage of when the quake hit shows businessmen in suits springing out of their buildings, narrowly missing being hit by huge falling chunks of concrete. But most modern buildings in Tokyo have been built to absorb the shock of earthquakes. It was Japan's northeast that saw the most damage — first from the quake and its powerful aftershocks, which buckled roads and crumbled buildings — then, from multiple waves of a tsunami.

It swept in, a wall of water, bearing down on villages, leveling houses, and carrying off cars and prop planes like they were toys.

Japan's Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, soon appeared on Japanese television:

"I offer my deepest sympathy to the people who have suffered the disaster. Regarding our nuclear facilities, some of the nuclear power plants have stopped automatically. But so far, no radioactive material or radiation has been confirmed to have been leaked to the outside."

Still, some 3,000 residents were evacuated as a precaution from near one nuclear power plant, because its cooling system was damaged. Fire was reported at another plant, and countless other fires broke out in earthquake affected areas — including at a petrochemical plant. The Prime Minister said he had set up an Emergency Disaster Response Center; he also said that the Japanese military would help in the relief effort, and that the people of Japan should remain calm.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said today that the U.N. stands ready to help, as well.

"Japan is one of the most generous and strongest benefactors coming to the assistance of those in need the world over. In that spirit, the United Nations stands by the people of Japan, and we will do anything and everything we can at this very difficult time."

But Japan is one of the world's best-prepared countries to deal with one of the world's worst earthquakes. As the tsunami spread, eyes quickly turned to Japan's poorer neighbors, in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. But the tsunami barely glanced the Philippines, and Indonesia — whose province of Aceh was devastated by the epic 2004 tsunami. The wave spread past Guam and Saipan without doing real damage. Hawaii sounded an early alarm for those on the coast to get to higher ground. Brian Shiro, at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, said the early warning system worked as it should.

"Everything's worked very smoothly throughout the system, all the way from the detection to the communications to coordination with emergency managers."

The waves that hit Hawaii were about six feet, those that hit the west coast, a little smaller. This tsunami packed nothing like the punch of the massive wave that had wiped out entire villages in Aceh in 2004. That tsunami washed inland at heights of up to 100 feet.

Still, when residents in northeastern Japan wake up on Saturday, they'll face their own hell of death and destruction — and even for one of the world's richest and best prepared countries, it will take time to climb out from that.