Japan was struck by its strongest earthquake on record, an 8.9-magnitude temblor that shook buildings across Tokyo and unleashed a seven-meter-high tsunami that killed hundreds and engulfed towns on the northern coast.
Hundreds more were reported missing after waves as high as 23 feet swept ashore, according to state broadcaster NHK. Flood waters washed away buildings and vehicles, airports were shut, bullet train service was suspended, and an emergency evacuation order was issued for a nuclear power plant north of Tokyo.
More than a dozen aftershocks greater than magnitude 6 have rocked the region, Dave Applegate, a senior adviser at the U.S. Geological Survey, told reporters on a conference call.
“They will continue for not just days, weeks but months and potentially years,” Applegate said.
He said the energy released by the temblor was 30 times that of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and it was the biggest quake within the boundaries of the North American and Pacific tectonic plates in more than a thousand years.
“The only evidence we have is from monastic records going back to AD 869 -- 1,200 years ago -- of an earthquake of this magnitude” in the region, he said.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan appealed to his people to “act calmly,” in a nationally televised address after convening an emergency response team.
Kan said he is taking all possible action to deal with the aftermath of yesterday’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake. He made the comment to reporters as he departed to view the quake-hit area by helicopter. He will also visit a nuclear power plant in the area, where residents had been evacuated.
U.S. President Barack Obama, saying he was “heartbroken” over what he called “a potentially catastrophic disaster,” called Kan and offered “whatever assistance is needed.”
The Philippines, Indonesia and Chile were among more than 20 nations that braced for a possible tsunami. Taiwan roads later opened and the Philippines and Indonesia reported no unusual waves.
Tsunami waves began reaching the western U.S. coast as communities from southern Oregon to Los Angeles prepared for swells and rough seas. The U.S. Coast Guard said it was searching for a person swept out to sea in northern California as waves prompted evacuations of some coastal areas.
“Our harbor has been destroyed,” said Scott Feller, a harbor commissioner in Crescent City, a logging and fishing town of about 7,600. “We have 35 boats that have been crushed or stacked up on each other that didn’t leave the harbor. Our dock has been destroyed.”
Still, the tsunami’s effect would be blunted in the U.S. as it hit at the lowest tide point of the day, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said earlier.
Evacuations in Japan
It was the world’s strongest earthquake since a December 2004 temblor in Indonesia that left about 220,000 people dead or missing in 12 countries around the Indian Ocean. The earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time yesterday 130 kilometers (81 miles) off the coast of Sendai, north of Tokyo, at a depth of 24 kilometers, the U.S. Geological Survey said. It was followed by a 7.1-magnitude aftershock at 4:25 p.m.
An evacuation order was issued to residents living within 3 kilometers of a reactor at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. An emergency order was issued earlier, the first of its kind.
“One of the reactors can no longer be cooled,” Edano told reporters. “Therefore, we’ve decided to request an evacuation just in case there’s an emergency.”
Eleven units of Tokyo Electric’s six thermal-power plants were shut, while 22 hydro plants were halted, the company said in a statement. About 3 million homes serviced by Tokyo Electric were without electricity, it said.
Oil slumped 1.5 percent to $101.16 a barrel at 3:09 p.m. in New York and earlier fell 3.6 percent to $99.01 for its biggest drop since November. The MSCI World Index, a gauge of stocks in developed markets including Japan, erased a loss of as much as 0.5 percent while the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index gained 0.9 percent to 1,306.49.
Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average tumbled 1.7 percent, led by insurers, as the earthquake struck less than half an hour before the market closed. The yen strengthened 1.3 percent against the dollar.
Japan has mobilized 8,000 troops and 300 planes and has asked the U.S. military personnel stationed in the country to aid victims, Edano said. Tsunami warnings will continue for more than another day, he said.
Seeking U.S. Help
“We’ve asked for help from the U.S. military stationed in Japan,” Edano told reporters in Tokyo. Options being considered include allowing firefighting helicopters to land on the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier, for refueling and transporting medical supplies, he said.
Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Justin Cole said various vessels in the U.S. fleet are being repositioned to eastern Japan to assist, if needed.
Obama said at a press conference Friday at the White House that there has been no sign of radiation leaks from Japan’s nuclear power plants and that he has directed Energy Secretary Steven Chu to provide whatever aid Japan needs.
“Obviously, you’ve got to take all potential precautions,” Obama said.
The U.S. Air Force is helping deliver coolant to a damaged Japanese plant, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
In the space of an hour, tsunami waves swept inland, buffeting Japan’s coast from Erimo in the northern island of Hokkaido to Oarai, Fukushima, about 670 kilometers to the south, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. The waves reached as far as 20 kilometers inland, NHK reported.
Boats smashed into walls as the tsunami struck, inundating buildings and flyovers with black water full of debris across stretches of coast north of Tokyo, NHK images showed. Hundreds of cars were washed around like toys and one large building was lifted off its foundations and dragged into the ocean.
Farmland was flooded with burning debris in some other areas as the tidal surge swept inland. Large boats were left stranded after the water surged back to sea.
A fire at Cosmo Oil Co.’s refinery in Chiba, outside Tokyo, was spreading, a Fire Department spokesman said. JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp. shut refineries in Sendai, Kashima and Negishi.
Toru Yoshihashi, 48, was in Ginza, one of Tokyo’s upscale shopping areas, when the earthquake struck. “The ground suddenly started shaking,” he said. “I stayed outside and watched all these tall buildings sway. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
At Sumitomo Trust & Banking Co. in the capital, strategist Ayako Sera said “traders kept working through the quake” and were “grabbing the edges of our desks and holding on.”
Tokyo’s streets filled with traffic and pedestrians trying to get home after train services were closed. Government buildings are being opened for people to take shelter in the capital after officials urged residents not to try to walk home.
Tokyo’s subway system, the world’s busiest with about 8 million riders a day, shut down, leaving commuters to wait hours for taxis or search for somewhere to spend the night. Commuter trains serving the city and suburbs were also halted.
Office workers stood in lines for taxis at the city’s central railway station while buses picked up passengers who stood in a 100-meter queue.
East Japan Railway Co., the nation’s largest train operator, stopped all Tokyo-area commuter services and its Joetsu, Tohoku and Nagano bullet-train operations.
‘Rigorous’ Building Code
“Japan has a rigorous earthquake building code and excellent tsunami warning system and evacuation plans -- this event will likely provide a severe test for all of them,” James Goff, co-director of the Australian Tsunami Research Centre and Natural Hazards Research Lab at the University of New South Wales, said in an e-mailed statement.
Tokyo’s Narita Airport, Japan’s main international gateway, restarted some flights after stopping services earlier. About 13,800 passengers had been stranded, Ryoko Yabe, a spokeswoman for the airport, said by phone. The airport gave the travelers water and food, she said.
There was no visible damage to runways, she said. Tokyo’s Haneda airport, Asia’s second-busiest by passengers, resumed flights, the transport ministry said.
All Nippon Airways Co., Japan’s largest listed carrier, has canceled 131 flights, affecting 32,700 passengers, and diverted another 24, it said in a faxed statement. Japan Airlines Corp. said at least 27 flights were affected.
‘Ring of Fire’
Like Indonesia, Japan lies on the so-called “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines surrounding the Pacific Basin. A 6.9-magnitude earthquake in Kobe, western Japan, killed more than 6,000 people in 1995, while the 7.9-magnitude Great Kanto Quake of 1923 destroyed 576,262 structures and killed an estimated 140,000.
The Japan Meteorological Agency told people to avoid coastal areas and evacuate to higher ground because of possible aftershocks, according to an official at a press conference in Tokyo shown on NHK.
The airport in Sendai, a city of 1 million people 310 kilometers north of Tokyo, was flooded by the tsunami, according to NHK footage.
The Bank of Japan, the central bank, set up an emergency task force and said it will do everything it can to provide ample liquidity. The BOJ, which has already cut its benchmark rate to zero in an effort to end deflation, had last month said the economy was poised to recover from a contraction in the fourth quarter.
The Ministry of Finance said it was too soon to gauge the economic impact of the temblor.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the UN “stands by the people of Japan and we will do anything and everything we can” to help.
“The world is shocked and saddened by the images coming from Japan this morning,” Ban told reporters Friday in New York.