Huge Quake and Tsunami Hit Japan


TOKYO — An earthquake of 8.9. magnitude struck off the coast of Japan on Friday, the strongest ever recorded in the country. The quake churned up a devastating tsunami that swept over cities and farmland in the northern part of the country and threatened coastal areas throughout the Pacific and as far away the west coast of the United States and South America.Fragmentary early reports of the toll indicate that hundreds of people have been killed. Japanese police officials told the Associated Press that 200 to 300 bodies were found in Sendai, a port city in the northeastern part of the country and the closest main city to the epicenter. 
Walls of water whisked away houses and cars in northern Japan, where terrified residents fled the coast. Train service was shut down across central and northern Japan, including Tokyo, and air travel was severely disrupted. A ship carrying more than 100 people was swept away by the tsunami, Kyodo News reported.

The government evacuated thousands of residents near a nuclear plant about 170 miles northeast of Tokyo after a backup generator failed, compromising the cooling system, the Associated Press reported.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the disaster caused major damage across wide areas. With rescue efforts just getting under way, the full extent of injuries and damage will not be known for some time.

The United States Geological Survey said the quake reached a magnitude of 8.9, making it the most severe worldwide since an 8.8 quake off the coast of Chile a little more than a year ago. It was less powerful than the 9.1-magnitude quake that struck off Northern Sumatra in late 2004. That quake spawned a tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean.

The survey said it was centered off the coast of Honshu, the most populous of the Japanese islands, at a point about 230 miles northeast of Tokyo and a depth of about 17 miles below the earth’s surface.

The quake occurred at 2:46 p.m. Tokyo time, and was so powerful that buildings in central Tokyo, designed to withstand major earthquakes, swayed.

“This tremor was unlike any I’ve experienced previously, and I’ve lived here for eight years,” said Matt Alt, an American writer and translator living in Tokyo. “It was a sustained rolling that made it impossible to stand, almost like vertigo.” Dozens of aftershocks have been felt in the hours after the quake, some of them of magnitude 6.0 or greater, strong enough to do significant damage of their own..

President Obama said the United States was ready to help with any assistance. "Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the people of Japan,” he said in a statement. He said he had instructed federal agencies to be prepared to assist Hawaii and any other areas in the United States affected by the tsunami.

Officials around the Pacific warned residents of coastal areas to prepare for a possible tsunami, but the initial reports were of minimal to no damage in the first places that the wave reached. Tsunami waves of about 30 centimeters, or about 2.5 feet, were reported in Halmahera, Indonesia, but did little harm. Russia, China and Indonesia canceled their warnings after a few hours.

Gauges at Midway Island in the Pacific registered a wave amplitude of about five feet, according to Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. In Hawaii, where an evacuation of coastal areas was ordered, a surge of about four feet was reported. Waves of that size have the potential to be devastating, Mr. Fryer said, because “there’s a tremendous amount of water” in them. But initial reports from Hawaii mentioned only minor damage.

Mr. Fryer said that concerns that the waves might wash over entire low-lying islands in the Pacific were unfounded. “Washing over islands is not going to happen,” he said. Still, he said, that communities on the West Coast of North America should take precautions.

Television images showed waves of more than 12 feet roaring inland in Japan. The tsunami drew a line of white fury across the ocean, heading toward the shoreline. Cars and trucks were still moving on highways as the water rushed toward them.

Martin Fackler reported from Tokyo, and Kevin Drew from Hong Kong. Daniel Krieger contributed from Osaka, Japan, Bettina Wassener from Hong Kong, Alan Cowell and Richard Berry from Paris, Michael Schwirtz from Moscow, Henry Fountain and Maria Newman from New York, Mike Hale from Honolulu, and Elisabeth Bumiller from Brussels.