A magnitude 8.9 earthquake believed to be one of the most powerful quakes in more than a century has rocked the northeastern part of Japan. The tremblor, centered a relatively shallow 15 miles below the surface, caused a 23-foot tsunami that swept through coastal areas in Fukushima Prefecture, and a 13-foot tsunami in nearby Iwate Prefecture. Four other northern prefectures were hit with waves also up to 13 feet.
Dramatic aerial images over Miyagi, which is largely flat farming land, showed a dark, debris-filled sea of water and mud enveloping everything in its path, from houses to cars and roads, though the death toll is unconfirmed, the Associated Press is reporting that 300 bodies have washed up on a beach near Sendai. The AP has confirmed 151 deaths. Another 547 were reported missing.
The Japanese government reacted quickly and has said they consider this one of the most serious natural disasters in the country's history. In a press conference, Prime Minister Naoto Kan called for calm and cooperation. "We will secure the safety of the people of Japan and work to remain cautious, and be vigilant about keeping tuned in to television and radio reports," he said. "We ask the people of Japan to act with calm."
For Kan, the timing is particularly sensitive: Parliament was in the middle of discussing an illegal donations scandal when the quake hit. If he leads the country effectively through the disaster, the quake may be his saving grace.
Outside Japan, several countries were on high alert. The Honolulu-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has issued tsunami warning for a string of countries that now includes Indonesia, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, as well as Mexico, Chile and Peru. Earlier, the center issued a warning for Japan, Russia, Marcus Island, the Northern Marianas, Guam, Wake Island and Taiwan. The tsunami rekindled grim memories of the great Asian tsunami triggered on Dec. 24, 2004, which eventually claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Japan's capital, Tokyo, about 186 miles from the epicenter, was badly rattled. "Across the road there's a tenement block. It's swaying horrifically, so much so, in fact, that it looks like a miniature, as though it's been subjected to tilt shift photo technology," wrote one woman, who was live-blogging from Tokyo. "I can't quite compute seeing a building doing that." After the quake, massive crowds in Tokyo gathered outside of major stations as trains and subways came to a halt. People stood in shock. Some cried and others hugged.
Traffic in my neighborhood of Shibuya was paralyzed during the quake. One taxi driver told me he thought he had a flat tire when his vehicle began to shake. "That must have been the biggest one I've ever felt," he said worriedly while trying to telephone his relatives up north. I then noticed a long line forming in front of a lone public phone. It was a bizarre sight in this mobile-crazed society and confirmed my fear that land lines are likely the only reliable telephone service available. Stepping out into the street I saw a growing line in front of a convenience store as people rushed to buy food, water and other necessities. The store manager said some supplies are running short and that chargers for mobile phones have sold out.
More than four million buildings in Tokyo and surrounding areas reportedly lost power soon after the quake. Hundreds of thousands of people in the city of 13 million have been left stranded after train and subway services were suspended. East Japan Railway Company says it stopped train operations, including the Shinkansen bullet trains, although no major damage has been reported so far. The Tokyo Metro subway has also suspended all operations. Company officials say it will take time to check the safety of all tunnels before resuming operations. The Transport Ministry said that Tokyo's two airports, Narita and Haneda, had closed their runways, and the Nuclear Power Security Agency reported that the five nuclear power plants in northeastern Japan were shut down.
At an electronics store TV display I stood in shock with strangers as we watched live coverage of a tsunami sweeping across rice fields, bridges, cars attempting to escape and hundreds of homes in northern Japan. We all agreed it was the first time we've witnessed a natural disaster of this scale in Japan. "Do you think this is the 'big one' we've been expecting?" I asked. "Maybe there's more to come," said one young woman fearfully as an aftershock rolled under our feet. We fear the full extent of the damage has yet to unfold.
With reporting by Emily Rauhala/Hong Kong