James Nachtwey, an award-winning photographer for TIME who has spent years documenting the ravages of war, was awed by the destruction caused by the March 11 earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan and the cataclysmic tsunami it spawned. "The scale of this is beyond belief. It's apocalyptic," he said after visiting Japan in the quake's aftermath. Measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, the temblor was one of the worst natural disasters in modern history, so powerful it knocked the whole planet off its axis by a foot. It also posed the greatest challenge to Japan since the end of World War II.
The quake and the waves it produced decimated towns and cities along an entire stretch of the northeastern Honshu coast. Nearly 16,000 residents are estimated dead, and the price of the disaster may reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars. That's in part because of a third crisis that followed the earthquake and tsunami's one-two punch: a major meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, caused after tsunami waves overwhelmed the facility and corrupted its coolant systems. The problems at Fukushima proved to be the quake's most enduring aftershock, causing months of frantic emergency efforts, scares over radioactive contamination and global hand-wringing over the safety and viability of nuclear energy around the world.