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Record earthquake rocks Japan; Thousands dead as tsunami sweeps northeast Japan

Date Posted: 2011-03-16

A quiet Friday afternoon turned to a raging mess at 2:46 p.m. when the most powerful earthquake ever to strike this island nation ripped through northeast Kyushu, spawning a series of frighteningly powerful tsunamis that dealt even more devastation.

The official death toll is already well about 3,000, but officials are predicting the numbers will climb rapidly as search efforts begin finding bodies trapped in and under buildings and vehicles. The epicenter of Friday’s quake, which was recorded at a record 8.9 and later revised to 9.0, was the largest ever in Japan and the fifth most powerful in the world.

Okinawa was spared the devastation, with a minor tsunami event arriving here about 5:40 p.m. Prefecture officials were on top of the tsunami, with police using loudspeakers urging evacuations from low lying areas, including Mihama. The Okinawa Beach Tower Hotel’s residents were evacuated, and the U.S. military evacuated personnel from low lying areas of Camps Kinser, Foster and Kadena Air Base. In addition, Air Force personnel were ordered to report to their duty sections in an accountability muster.

The tsunami that struck Okinawa was only about one meter high, causing no damage. Some flights from Naha International Airport were canceled, but only because Haneda and Narita Airports were closed. Cellular phone communications were problematic at best, with spotty service nationwide as power outages crashed systems.

Centered in quake-prone Miyagi Prefecture northeast of Tokyo, the Japan Meteorological Agency says the earthquake’s magnitude surpassed the 7.9 registered in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in Tokyo, which killed more than 100,000. Compounding the devastation by the earthquake and following tsunami, a set of nuclear reactors were damaged by the earthquake. The situation at the Fukushima Power Stations continues to deteriorate with cooling systems failing, explosions rocking several of the plants and nuclear fuel rods being exposed to the air. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency has been evacuating people living within 30 kilometers of the plants, with further evacuations possible.

A major fire broke out at the Cosmo Oil Company refinery in Ichihara. Automotive industry operations were halted at Central Motors plant and Kanto Auto Works Ltd., in neighboring Iwate Prefecture. Both are affiliates of Toyota. Honda Motor company closed three plants, including one in Saitama Prefecture, whileMitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corp., halted operations at its Kawasaki plant. Steel giant Sumitomo Metal Industries Ltd., stopped operations in Ibaraki Prefecture and workers evacuated. Even electronics giant Sony had to suspend operations at all six of its group plants in the northeast region. Brewery operations at Asahi Breweries in theTohoku region and Kirin Brewery in Sendai were halted.

The Fukushima power plants operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company were rattled by the massive quake, apparently causing cracks in the aging facility structure. An explosion injured four workers and split the plant’s roof and walls. Tepco says the roof collapsed after a large tremor. The nuclear plant lost cooling ability after being rattled by Friday’s quake, and radioactive materials were detected on Saturday. Detection of the materials, which are created in the atomic fission process, prompted the nuclear safety agency to admit the reactor had been melting, a first for Japan.

The death toll from Friday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami will likely surpass 10,000 hard-hit Miyagi Prefecture at the heart of the destruction. The Miyagi Police Chief predicts hundreds of bodies will be uncovered in his prefecture towns as search and clean up operations get going. More than 2,000 bodies have already been found in Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered 65,000 Japan Self Defense Force troops to the stricken region, but said that number will rise in a matter of days as logistics systems kick in. Some 20,820 buildings have already been examined and found fully or partially damaged in the quake.

The tsunami alert for Japan’s coastal region from Hokkaido to Kyushi was lifted Saturday night, but not before walls of water raced across cities, towns, villages and countryside, decimating everything in its path. Property damage estimates range from $35 billion to $100 billion. British and American search and rescue teams are on site, and the powerful U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan is conducting operations off the east coast in support of rescue missions.

Friday’s earthquake was caused when the Pacific plate slipped under Japan at the Japan Trench, causing tsunami as high as 20 meters to slam the coat. An Earthquake Research specialist, Satoko Oki of the University of Tokyo, says the quake was estimated to be 1,000 more powerful than the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that killed more than 6,000. Oki says Friday’s earthquake was set up by a rupture near the boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates.

The earthquake was so powerful, it rocked the earth’s axis, shifting it 10 centimeters. With more than 300 earthquakes rattling Japan each day, it’s difficult to forecast when the next ‘big one’ could hit. Oki says they’re difficult to predict, and warned Tokyoites—who felt the earthquake as a magnitude 5.0 shake—not to be complacent, and to begin planning for a similar earthquake that could hit the nation’s capital.

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