Japan sent thousands of rescue workers to the northeastern coastal area devastated by the country’s strongest earthquake on record as officials at a nuclear power station battled to prevent a meltdown after an explosion near a reactor.
The confirmed death toll from the 8.9-magnitude temblor and the ensuing tsunami that swept away buildings and cars reached 680 and may rise to more than 1,000, according to Japanese public broadcaster NHK. Miyagi prefecture said 10,000 residents, more than half the population of the town of Minamisanriku, couldn’t be located since the March 11 quake, NHK said.
An estimated 4,000 people were stranded in evacuation centers in Sendai, 310 kilometers (193 miles) north of Tokyo, without food, water or heat, awaiting rescue by helicopter. Prime Minister Naoto Kan, returning yesterday from an inspection of the ravaged area around Sendai, a city of 1 million people, said he would mobilize 50,000 Self Defense Force personnel to aid the relief effort.
Australia said it was sending search-and-rescue teams with dogs that can detect bodies trapped in rubble. The teams will carry 22 tons of equipment and supplies, Attorney General Robert McClelland said in a statement. The U.S. Agency for International Development said today it is sending urban search-and-rescue teams from California and the Washington area at the request of the Japanese government.
The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan arrived off the Japanese coast yesterday to support relief efforts by rescue services, Leslie Hull-Ryde, a U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman, said. The carrier will be joined by the USS Essex and both vessels “can be used for helicopter operations and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Bahrain yesterday.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. said an explosion near the No. 1 reactor at its Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station destroyed the walls of the reactor building and injured four people. Officials were using seawater to cool a reactor and prevent damage to the chamber holding its radioactive core.
A hydrogen leak caused the blast, which didn’t damage the steel chamber, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. Japan’s Nuclear Safety Agency couldn’t confirm a meltdown at the plant, and monitoring around the reactor is showing that radiation is falling, a spokesman, Shinji Kinjyo, said today.
There have been at least 109 aftershocks since the quake, the U.S. Geological Survey said. They include a 6.3-magnitude temblor that occurred today off the coast 115 kilometers southeast of Sendai, the USGS said. More than a dozen greater than magnitude 6 have rocked the region, Dave Applegate, a senior adviser at USGS, told reporters on a conference call.
“They will continue for not just days, weeks but months and potentially years,” Applegate said.
The quake was the world’s strongest since a December 2004 temblor in Indonesia that left about 220,000 people dead or missing in 12 countries around the Indian Ocean. The Japan earthquake triggered tsunami warnings around the Pacific Rim as far away as Mexico, Chile and Antarctica. Those were lifted yesterday.
It was the biggest within the boundaries of the North American and Pacific tectonic plates in 1,200 years, Applegate said. The temblor unleashed a 7-meter-high tsunami that engulfed towns on the northern coast, washing away buildings, vehicles and boats.
Wall of Water
The wall of water reached as far as 20 kilometers inland, according NHK. Drinking water supplies were disrupted for tens of thousands of homes in Tokyo and along the east coast, agencies said.
Some of the nation’s largest manufacturers shut down operations. Toshiba Corp. reported closure of a plant that makes sensors for the cameras in its mobile phones. Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s biggest carmaker, said it will suspend production at all factories in Japan tomorrow to confirm the safety of its employees.
The earthquake forced the suspension of bullet-train and subway services around Tokyo and the cancellations of international and domestic flights.
Tokyo’s subway system, the world’s busiest with about 8 million riders a day, returned to normal yesterday.
Narita Airport, the city’s main international gateway, also began operating normally. Flights stopped landing March 11, stranding 13,800 passengers at the airport. They were given water and food, Ryoko Yabe, a spokeswoman for the airport, said by phone. Haneda airport, Asia’s second-busiest by passengers, resumed flights, the transport ministry said.
The quake hit 13 minutes before Mana Nakazora’s flight from New York was scheduled to land. She was diverted to Nagoya’s airport, where she spent the night before getting on a bullet train to Tokyo.
“The train was working already and was punctual,” Nakazora said. “Only Japan can do this.”
The Ministry of Finance said earlier it was too soon to gauge the economic impact of the temblor.
The Bank of Japan, the central bank, set up an emergency task force and said it would do everything it could to provide ample liquidity. The BOJ, which has already cut its benchmark rate to zero to end deflation, said last month the economy was poised to recover from a contraction in the fourth quarter.
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.
Tossed Like Toys
Within an hour of the earthquake, 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.
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, television 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 burned at Cosmo Oil Co.’s refinery in Chiba, outside Tokyo, and JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp. shut refineries in Sendai, Kashima and Negishi.
‘Ring of Fire’
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.
“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.