Biggest-Ever Japanese Earthquake Prompts Tsunami Warnings Throughout Pacific [Updated]

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Photo: XIinhua/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

A massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami that damaged much of the country's coastline and raised fears of additional tsunamis throughout the Pacific Rim, from Mexico down the Pacific Coast of South America. A full coastal evacuation is under way in Hawaii as officials predict six-foot waves could sweep the island chain. Kauai was the first hit early Friday with sea-level observation stations reporting rising ocean levels, according to CNN. Diamond Head in Oahu is reporting a 300-foot recession of the shoreline, which often precedes a big wave.

The death toll in Japan stood at about 50 people before officials reported 200 to 300 bodies found in the coastal city of Sendai, where the tsunami washed across farmland. The number is expected to rise.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said nuclear reactors in northeast Japan had automatically shut down due to the quake, but that no radioactive materials had leaked. Japan ordered a 1.6-mile evacuation around the Fukushima nuclear plant out of concern that insufficient power is getting to the parts that cool the reactor. The quake set off a huge oil-refinery fire north of Tokyo, where high-rise buildings designed to withstand major earthquakes swayed for several minutes. More than 30 aftershocks were reported, the largest measuring 7.1.

The tsunami waves that followed reached upwards of 30 feet high and devastated Japan's northeastern shoreline. Waves pushed over ships, carried smaller vessels inland, knocked buildings off their foundation, tossed cars about like toys, and reversed the direction of a river. The tsunami was so devastating because the quake happened "near a deep trench in the sea floor that marks the boundary between two plates of the earth's crust."

Economist Nouriel Roubini told Bloomberg, "This is certainly the worst thing that can happen in Japan at the worst time." Roubini said Japan will have to institute a massive stimulus program to reconstruct devastated regions, inflating the country's existing deficit woes. But as the world's third-largest economy, the financial impact could be far-reaching.

No damage was reported in Taiwan as the tsunami's impact hit its shores. Authorities in the Philippines have also started evacuating, warning residents that meter-high waves could go on for several hours. The West Coast of the U.S., from California to Oregon, is also preparing for possible impact.


Huge Earthquake Triggers Tsunami Off Japan’s Coast [NYT]
Hawaii orders evacuations in tsunami threat [Reuters]
Tsunami prompts evacuation order in Hawaii [LAT]
Powerful earthquake, tsunami strike Japan; rising death toll, substantial damage feared [WP]
Roubini Says Earthquake Is ‘Worst Thing’ at ‘Worst Time’ for Japan Economy [Bloomberg]

Update: Although officials say there is still no radiation leak, the Japanese government has declared an “atomic power emergency” at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant and evacuated thousands of residents.

"It's the sort of thing that nuclear engineers have nightmares about," nuclear physicist Dr. Walt Patterson tells the BBC. "If it is not resolved in the next few hours it will get serious. If the core is uncovered, then those rods at the top may get hot enough to melt themselves."

The death toll is likewise looking more grim. Although the city of Kyodo reports the toll for the earthquake itself has been revised down from 137 to 133, another 531 people are missing. A boat with 100 people, shown in television footage in the middle of a whirlpool, has been reported missing. The combined death toll including the tsunami's effects, is now expected to exceed 1,000. In Hawaii, however, there doesn't appear to be much damage beyond soaked beaches. Strong waves have also hit the West Coast from California to Oregon. During a press conference around 12.30 EST, President Obama said, "There hasn't been any major damage so far, but we're taking this very seriously." He also urged people who are being instructed to evacuate to do what they're told.

Tsunami hits Japan after massive quake [BBC]
Tsunami Reaches California After Soaking Hawaii [ABC News]