8.9-Magnitude Earthquake Triggers Tsunami in Japan, Hundreds Killed

BY Francine Uenuma  March 11, 2011 at 9:56 PM EST

By: Francine Uenuma and news desk

Updated 10:13 p.m. ET | After 2 Disasters, Officials Scramble to Prevent More at Nuclear Plants

Thousands of residents have been evacuated as workers struggled to get nuclear reactors under control at two nuclear power plants to prevent meltdowns. Japan declared states of emergency — the first in its history — for five reactors at two plants after the units lost cooling ability following Friday’s powerful earthquake.

Operators at Fukushima Daiichi plant’s Unit 1 scrambled to tamp down heat and pressure inside the reactor, according to the AP. The site lost electricity and emergency generators were disabled, knocking out the main cooling system.

A day after Japan’s biggest quake on record, the government said it’s still too early to grasp the full extent of damage and casualties. The confirmed death toll is almost 300, but media reports estimate it’s at least 1,300.

Kyodo news agency quoted Tokyo Electric Power as saying it was having difficulties opening a valve at its Daiichi reactor — 150 miles north of Tokyo — to release pressure, but experts and the government both insisted there a radioactive disaster would not happen.

“No Chernobyl is possible at a light-water reactor. Loss of coolant means a temperature rise, but it also will stop the reaction,” Naoto Sekimura, a professor at the University of Tokyo, said, according to Reuters.

On Friday’s NewsHour, Judy Woodruff and Jim Lehrer reported on the 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan. From San Francisco, Spencer Michels reported on the tsunami’s initial impact on the West Coast. Then, Judy Woodruff discussed Japan’s earthquake-preparedness efforts and government response with the Council on Foreign Relations’ Sheila Smith, Chris Meinig of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and structural engineer Jim Harris.

Weekend coverage: Stay with The Rundown this weekend for more coverage of the aftermath in Japan. Also, check out coverage from the BBC, Al Jazeera English, NHK World and The New York Times’ The Lede blog.

6:35 p.m. ET | Japanese officials have declared a state of emergency at a nuclear power plant and ordered evacuations after Friday’s temblor cut power to a cooling system at the Fukushima Daiichi facility. According to the AP, officials said some radiation had seeped outside the plant, prompting calls for more evacuations of the area.

Altogether, five reactor units — two at the Fukushima No. 1 plant and three at nearby Fukushima No. 2 plant — are in a state of emergency. All five plants have shut down after the massive quake Friday.

The New York Times has more on concerns about the safety of Japan’s nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the quake.

5:30 p.m. ET |
NHK has some new video from Japan that details the scope of damage from the tsunami and earthquake.

According to the AP, Japanese police officials say at least 178 people have been killed, with 584 missing. Police also said 947 people were injured.

Plus, experts say Japan is the “most prepared place in the world” for the dual earthquake-tsunami disaster it is now experiencing.

4:50 p.m. ET | Japanese officials say the radiation level outside one of its nuclear plants has increased significantly and is planning to widen the evacuation perimeter, the Associated Press is reporting.

3:40 p.m. ET | According to Japan’s nuclear safety agency the Fukushima No. 1 power plant has seen a rise in pressure to 1.5 times normal levels. Officials said emergency crews trained to deal with any potential radiation leak have been sent to the area.

Several aid groups have already started coordinating responses to those affected.

NewsHour’s Paul Solman looks at the economic impact of the natural disaster.

3:25 p.m. ET NewsHour spoke with people in Tokyo to get reaction on the aftermath of the quake:

 

 

2:45 p.m. ET | Rebekah Deep, a military spouse living in Zama Shi, a suburb of Tokyo, told NewsHour’s Larisa Epatko that when the earthquake hit she was riding on the train:

“It was a surprisingly long earthquake. It lasted several minutes. Luckily the train I was on had just pulled into a station. If it had been on the tracks, I would have been stuck there for hours. At first, I thought ‘my goodness this train is running very poorly, the engine must be bad.’ It started rocking and rocking and then it started to jerk and jump. Then I started to look out the windows of the train to the houses and buildings around. I can see the windows rattling, things are starting to fall off people’s clothing lines. It just got more and more violent. The train station lights were swinging and everything was rattling.”

People didn’t panic, Deep said, but she could tell by the looks on people’s faces what they were feeling. “I think of earthquakes in Japan as not an everyday occurrence, but something that people here are used to dealing with. But I was amazed to see the shock on everyone’s faces.”

Watch President Obama’s remarks on the tragedy in Japan:

 

2:25 p.m. ET | A 6.6-magnitude earthquake hit the central, mountainous part of the country, 105 miles north of Tokyo. The second quake was not in the same location as the many aftershocks.

We’re having another earthquake. The epicenter is now Nagano Pref., not Miyagi.less than a minute ago via web

 

2:15 p.m. ET | Officials now have the confirmed death toll at 151, with 547 still missing and 798 people injured.

2 p.m. ET | The NewsHour has a scientific look at how the tsunami and earthquake happened.

1:45 p.m. ET | Hawaii was hit with high waves, flooding some low-lying areas, but there are no reports of major damage.

1:30 p.m. ET | View Live Aftershock Activity in Japan:

 

1:05 p.m. ET | In a news conference Friday afternoon, President Obama called the tsunami in Japan a “catastrophic disaster,” adding that images of the aftermath have been “heartbreaking.”

The president said he spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan early Friday morning and conveyed “deepest condolences” to the victims and offered “whatever assistance is needed.”

One U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, is stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan, and another one is on its way.

President Obama said the Department of Defense is working to account for all military personnel, and that embassy personnel in Tokyo have moved to an off-site location.

Regarding tsunami warnings across the Pacific, the president said the administration was “monitoring the situation very closely” and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been activated to respond as necessary. He encouraged people to evacuate if asked by emergency officials.

“Today’s events remind us just how fragile life can be,” he said.

Meanwhile, Reporter/Producer Talea Miller spoke with Sandra Barron, a Tokyo-based editor and writer who was on the eighth floor of her apartment building near the Harajuku area of the city when the quake struck.

“There is a real feeling of controlled chaos,” she said. “There are a lot of people that couldn’t get home, they are in shelters. A lot of the public buildings opened up, a lot of the hotels opened up and a lot of the universities opened up their public areas for people to spend the night.”

Many evacuating employees in the streets had on padded helmets and shoulder pads, earthquake preparedness equipment they had with them in their offices, she said. But in other ways business went on as usual.

“I could still see delivery men going around, there was someone in a beverage truck still doing his job, there was a bicycle deliveryman delivering packages,” Barron said. “Tokyo is quite unscathed, relatively.”

11:50 a.m. ET
More video of the destruction in Japan via NHK:

 

11:45 a.m. ET | Reporter/producer Larisa Epatko spoke with Erik Slavin, staff writer for Stars and Stripes, moments ago by phone. He told us what he experienced at Yokosuka Naval base, 40 miles south of Tokyo:

“I was in my office at the time, and at first it was a low rumble and seemed like a run of the mill earthquake that you’ve come to expect every now and then in Japan. Except that it didn’t stop. It started picking up again in intensity and you really began to feel it and realize it was something extraordinary. A couple plants in my office fell down and things really began to shake.”

Slavin said soon afterward he went down to the pier and spoke to several sailors with the USS George Washington:

“The aircraft carrier is about 1,100 feet long and about 70,000 tons of structural steel, and the earthquake was able to move the ship away from the pier, which is pretty astonishing. A lot of these sailors felt as if they were underway at sea when they were in port, which is a feeling they had never experienced before. Some of them had experienced earthquakes before, and some of them had not, but every single one of them said that it was unlike anything they had ever experienced.”

11:39 a.m. ET

Local residents watch the devastation provoked by a tsunami tidal wave smashing vehicles and houses at Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan. Photo by Yomiuri Shimbun STR/AFP/Getty Images

11:30 a.m. ET | Officals have now confirmed 137 dead, 531 missing, and 627 injured as the official toll continues to grow.

11 a.m. ET | Officials have identified 110 of those killed, with 350 missing and 544 confirmed injured as casualties mount in the wake of the massive tsunami and aftershocks along Japan’s east coast. Massive fires could be seen in Miyagi prefecture, with uncontained flames burning overnight. The fires have been worsened by burning fuel. The government has ordered citizens near a nuclear plant in the city of Onahama to be evacuated as a precaution. The plant is 170 miles from Tokyo. The Japanese Coast Guard continued to search for 80 people believed to have been swept away from a dock in Miyagi.

According to Reuters, the World Nuclear Association, the main nuclear industry body, said on Friday that it understood the situation at Japan’s Fukushima plant was under control.

You can also follow live coverage from the BBC, New York Times, NHK (Japanese Broadcasting Corporation), al Jazeera, CNN, KITV (Hawaii), and on Google’s crisis response page.


An aerial view shows debris that remained on the ground after a tsunami wave to have hit Hitachinaka city in Ibaraki prefecture on March 11, 2011. A massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake shook Japan, unleashing a powerful tsunami that sent ships crashing into the shore and carried cars through the streets of coastal towns. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

9 a.m. ET | Japanese officials said an estimated 200 to 300 bodies were found in the city of Sendai, the northeastern city located near the epicenter of the tsunami. The death toll is expected to climb as rescuers assess the damage in dozens of cities and towns across the coast. Tremors could be felt on a 1,300 stretch of the coast. More than 50 aftershocks followed the initial impact, some reaching a magnitude of 6.0.

Mashable has an early roundup of some of the early reaction on Twitter. And Google has launched a Japanese version of its people finder tool, which has assisted in past disasters to help connect loved ones who may have been separated.

8:39 a.m. ET | Tsunami warnings are in effect across a wide swath of the Pacific, in the aftermath of a powerful earthquake to hit Japan.

 

According to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, the warning is in effect for a region stretching from Japan to Ecuador to Hawaii. This list has estimated arrival times of any quake-related waves.

And according to the Tsunami Warning Center for the West Coast and Alaska, the warning continues for:

Coastal areas of California and Oregon from Point Concepcion, California to the Oregon-Washington border.

Coastal areas of Washington, British Columbia and Alaska from the Oregon-Washington border to Amchitka Pass, Alaska (125 miles W of Adak).

8:01 a.m. ET | An 8.9-magnitude off of Japan’s east coast triggered a 23-foot tsunami, sweeping away homes and cars and killing at least 60 people Friday. The death toll is expected to rise as rescuers search for survivors. An estimated 19 aftershocks followed, themselves as high as 6.0-magnitude. The waves reached several miles inland from the coast before retreating. Tsunami warnings were in effect across the Pacific as far as the west coast of the U.S. and Hawaii, and there are fears that smaller islands across the ocean could be affected.

Officials in Hawaii called the warnings “very, very serious.”

 

The damage could be seen in towns across the north-eastern coast, and led to fires as far away as Tokyo, some 250 miles from where the tsunami fell. Many of the shinkansen, or bullet trains, in northern Japan were halted and an estimated four million homes in the capital were without power. A roof fell in on a graduation ceremony, injuring some of the attendees. Some were stranded in high-rise buildings as aftershocks continued to roil the city.

The quake was the most powerful in recent history in Japan, which is already earthquake-prone. The areas hardest hit were the Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, which include port cities and fishing towns. Several nuclear power plants were shut down as a precaution.

 

Prime Minister Naoto Kan appeared on television to express his sympathy to the victims and said emergency help and reinforcement was being sent to the affected area.

President Obama released a statement early Friday:

Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the people of Japan, particularly those who have lost loved ones in the earthquake and tsunamis. The United States stands ready to help the Japanese people in this time of great trial. The friendship and alliance between our two nations is unshakeable, and only strengthens our resolve to stand with the people of Japan as they overcome this tragedy. We will continue to closely monitor tsunamis around Japan and the Pacific going forward and we are asking all our citizens in the affected region to listen to their state and local officials as I have instructed FEMA to be ready to assist Hawaii and the rest of the US states and territories that could be affected.

We’ll have more on this all day here on the Rundown. If you have questions about the Japan quake, leave them in the comments section and we’ll do our best to answer them.

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