Vast Destruction, Crews Searching For Survivors

Key details:

  • 50,000 troops for the rescue and recovery efforts
  • Emergencies at nuclear reactors as cooling fails
  • 200 to 300 bodies found in one coastal city after tsunami
  • At least 90 fires in northeast Japan
  • More than 100 aftershocks

Japan launched a massive, military-led rescue operation Saturday after a giant quake and tsunami killed hundreds of people and turned the northeastern coast into a swampy wasteland as authorities braced for a possible meltdown at a nuclear reactor.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he is sending 50,000 troops for the rescue and recovery efforts following Friday's 8.9-magnitude quake that unleashed one of the greatest disasters Japan has witnessed — a 23-foot (7-meter) tsunami that washed far inland over fields, smashing towns, airports and highways in its way.

The official death toll stood at 413, while 784 people were missing and 1,128 injured. In addition, police said between 200 and 300 bodies were found along the coast in Sendai, the biggest city in the area near the quake's epicenter. An untold number of bodies were also believed to be lying in the rubble and debris. Rescue workers had yet to reach the hardest-hit areas.

"Unfortunately, we must be prepared for the number to rise greatly," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters Saturday.

Japanese media quoted local officials as saying the death toll was expected to top 1,000 as authorities tried to reach the hardest-hit areas.

More than 215,000 people were living in 1,350 temporary shelters in five prefectures, or states, the national police agency said. Since the quake, more than 1 million households have not had water, mostly concentrated in northeast.

Kan said a total of 190 military planes and 25 ships have been sent to the area.

"Most of houses along the coastline were washed away, and fire broke out there," he said after inspecting the quake area in a helicopter. "I realized the extremely serious damage the tsunami caused."

Adding to the worries was the damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where two reactors had lost cooling ability.

Aerial scenes of the town of Ofunato showed homes and warehouses in ruins. Sludge and high water spread over acres of land, with people seeking refuge on roofs of partially submerged buildings. At one school, a large white "SOS" had been spelled out in English.

The earthquake that struck off the northeastern shore ranked as the fifth-largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, scientists said.

Edano said an initial assessment found "enormous damage."

Police said 200-300 bodies were found along the coast in Sendai, the biggest city in the area. Authorities said they weren't able to reach the area because of damage to the roads.

For more than two terrifying, seemingly endless minutes Friday afternoon, the quake shook apart homes and buildings, cracked open highways and unnerved even those who have learned to live with swaying skyscrapers. Then came the devastating tsunami that washed far inland over fields and smashed towns.

The town of Rikuzentakada, population 24,700, in northern Iwate prefecture, looked largely submerged in muddy water, with hardly a trace of houses or buildings of any kind.

The entire Pacific had been put on alert — including coastal areas of South America, Canada and Alaska — but waves there were not as bad as expected.

Residents in Miyagi prefecture, who spent the night on top of a building, were rescued Saturday morning, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported.

"I was unable stay on my feet because of the violent shaking," a woman with a baby on her back told television in northern Japan. "The aftershocks gave us no reprieve, then the tsunami came when we tried to run for cover."

In one of the worst-hit residential areas, people buried under rubble could be heard calling out "Help" and "When are we going to be rescued?", the Kyodo news agency reported hours after the quake and tsunami. Rescuers were having a hard time reaching areas due to destroyed roads.

UPDATE>>> Authorities in northeastern Japan say they can't yet reach the area along the coast where they say 200 to 300 people were killed by today's earthquake and tsunami. They say the roads are too badly damaged.

Hundreds more are missing, and the number of injured has reached nearly 1,000. The huge waves that roared ashore after the magnitude-8.9 quake carried away ships, cars and homes, and triggered widespread fires. A large section of one town of 70,000 people (Kesennuma) has

been burning, with no apparent hope that the fire can be extinguished.

At least two trains were swept off their tracks along the coast, but no one was hurt.

In northeastern Japan, the area around a nuclear power plant was evacuated after the reactor's cooling system failed and pressure began building inside. Officials later ordered a wider area evacuated, after radiation levels outside the plant surged.

UPDATE>> Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed says people thinking about donating money in the wake of the deadly earthquake and tsunami in Japan should first check the charity is reputable. Reed says that after Hurricane Katrina, con artists benefited from taking money that was meant for victims. To avoid that this time around, Reed advised donors on Friday to check if the charity group in question is registered with the Secretary of State's office. Reed says that on the office's website donors can search by the charity's name. He says he doesn't want scammers to benefit from the tragedy.

BREAKING UPDATE>> Authorities in northeastern Japan say they can't yet reach the area along the coast where they say 200 to 300 people were killed by today's earthquake and tsunami. They say the roads are too badly damaged.

Hundreds more are missing, and the number of injured has reached nearly 1,000.

The huge waves that roared ashore after the magnitude-8.9 quake carried away ships, cars and homes, and triggered widespread fires.

A large section of one town of 70,000 people (Kesennuma) has been burning, with no apparent hope that the fire can be extinguished.

At least two trains were swept off their tracks along the coast, but no one was hurt.

In northeastern Japan, the area around a nuclear power plant was evacuated after the reactor's cooling system failed and pressure began building inside. Officials later ordered a wider area evacuated, after radiation levels outside the plant surged.

BREAKING NEWS UPDATE>>> Japan says radiation surges outside nuclear plant; evacuations expanded

UPDATE>>> The man swept out to sea has been confirmed dead. We're working on getting you more details.

UPDATE>>> A tsunami swept at least five people watching the waves out to sea Friday and ripped docks out of harbors in California, spreading the destruction of a devastating

Japanese earthquake to the shores of the United States.

Four people were rescued from the water in Oregon, but one man who was taking photos in Northern California was still missing Friday afternoon. Coast Guard helicopters searched for him near the mouth of the Klamath River in Del Norte County, Calif., after his two friends made it back to shore.

About 25 miles north, four people were swept off a beach north of Brookings, Ore. Two got out of the water on their own and the others were rescued by law enforcement and fire officials.

A man was found dead aboard a commercial vessel in Brookings, but sheriff's officials said it appeared to be from natural causes.

The large waves shook loose boats in that weren't moved in time and tore apart wooden docks in at least two California harbors.

 "This is just devastating. I never thought I'd see this again," said Ted Scott, a retired mill worker who lived in Crescent City when a 1964 tsunami killed 17 people on the West

Coast, including 11 in his town. "I watched the docks bust apart. It buckled like a graham cracker."

The waves didn't make it over a 20-foot break wall protecting the rest of the city, and no home damage was immediately reported.

Damage estimates in Crescent City were in the millions, and more boats and docks were hit in Santa Cruz on California's central coast. Surges are expected throughout the afternoon.

President Barack Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is ready to come to the aid of any U.S. states or territories who need help.

Earlier, the tsunami hit Hawaii before dawn, rushing up on roadways and into hotel lobbies on the Big Island and low-lying areas in Maui were flooded as 7-foot waves crashed ashore.

Scientists warned that the first tsunami waves are not always the strongest, and officials said people in Hawaii and along the West Coast should remain vigilant. Tsunami warnings continued in California and Oregon, but were downgraded to an advisory in

Hawaii, and Gov. Neil Abercrombie said the islands were "fortunate almost beyond words."

"All of us had that feeling that Hawaii was just the most  blessed place on the face of the Earth today," he said.

The tsunami, spawned by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan, killed hundreds as it slammed the eastern coast of Japan, sweeping away boats, cars, homes and people as widespread fires burned out of control.

It raced across the Pacific at 500 mph, as fast as a jetliner, before hitting Hawaii and the West Coast. Sirens sounded for hours on the islands and the West Coast before dawn and

roadways and beaches were mostly empty as the tsunami struck.

It is the second time in a little over a year that Hawaii and the U.S. West coast faced the threat of a massive tsunami. A magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile spawned warnings on Feb. 27,

2010, but the waves were much smaller than predicted and did little damage.

Scientists then acknowledged they overstated the threat but defended their actions, saying they took the proper steps and learned the lessons of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed thousands of people who didn't get enough warning.

This time around, the warning went out within 10 minutes of the earthquake in Japan, said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu.

"We called this right. This evacuation was necessary," Fryer said. "There's absolutely no question, this was the right thing to do," he said.

The warnings issued by the tsunami center covered an area stretching the entire western coast of the United States and Canada from the Mexican border to Chignik Bay in Alaska.

Many islands in the Pacific evacuated, but officials later told residents to go home because the waves weren't as bad as expected.

In Guam, the waves broke two U.S. Navy submarines from their moorings, but tug boats corralled the subs and brought them back to their pier. No damage was reported to Navy ships in Hawaii.

In the Canadian pacific coast province of British Columbia, authorities evacuated marinas, beaches and other areas.

Officials in two coastal Washington counties used an automated phone alert system, phoning residents on the coast and in low-lying areas and asking them to move to higher ground.

"We certainly don't want to cry wolf," said Sheriff Scott Johnson of Washington's Pacific County. "We just have to hope we're doing the right thing based on our information. We don't want

to be wrong and have people hurt or killed.

In Oregon, hotels were evacuated and shops stayed shuttered in the northwest tourist town of Seaside, where arcades, salt-water

taffy shops and seafood restaurants line a beachfront boardwalk.

Large waves didn't materialize, and by noon coastal residents were expected to be able to return home. "We weren't really worried about it," said Erik Bergman, whose

roommate woke him early Friday.

Latin American governments ordered islanders and coastal residents to head for higher ground. Coastal officials from Mexico to Chile were hauling boats from the sea, closing ports and schools

and preparing to evacuate thousands of people ahead of the tsunami's expected arrival at 5 p.m. EST.

Heavy swells rolled through ports and marinas of Mexico's Baja California resort of Cab San Lucas, and the major Pacific cargo port of Manzanillo was closed. Several cargo ships and a cruise ship decided to wait out a possible tsunami at sea rather than risk possible damage in a harbor.

The Honolulu International Airport remained open but seven or eight jets bound for Hawaii turned around, including some originating from Japan, the state Department of Transportation

said. All harbors were closed and vessels were ordered to leave the harbor.

About 70 percent of Hawaii's 1.4 million population resides in Honolulu, and as many as 100,000 tourists are in the city on any given day.

A small 4.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Big Island just before 5 a.m. EST, but there were no reports of damages and the quake likely wasn't related to the much larger one in Japan, the

USGS said.

The worst big wave to strike the U.S. was a 1946 tsunami caused by a magnitude of 8.1 earthquake near Unimak Islands, Alaska, that killed 165 people, mostly in Hawaii. In 1960, a magnitude 9.5 earthquake in southern Chile caused a tsunami that killed at least

1,716 people, including 61 people in Hilo. It also destroyed most of that city's downtown. On the U.S. mainland, a 1964 tsunami from a 9.2 magnitude earthquake in Prince William Sound, Alaska, struck Washington State, Oregon and California. It killed 128 people, including 11 in Crescent City, Calif.


UPDATE>>> MCKINLEYVILLE, Calif. (AP) - Coast Guard searches for man swept out to sea in Northern Calif. while taking pics of tsunami.

UPDATE>>> Japan's Meteorological Agency says a magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck the central, mountainous part of the country hours after a massive quake hit off the country's northeastern coast.

Friday's magnitude 8.9 temblor, but the most recent quake was in an entirely different location. The latest quake hit early Saturday at a depth of six miles (10 kilometers), about 105 miles (170 kilometers) north of Tokyo. It caused buildings in Tokyo to sway. There were no immediate reports of damage.

UPDATE>>> Vigorous waves similar to any stormy day on the coast were the only sign that a tsunami had arrived in Washington. The National Weather Service said the first wave of the tsunami to hit the Washington Coast just after 7 a.m. measured 1.7 feet at La Push, about half a foot at Neah Bay and Port Angeles, and 1.3 feet at Westport.

About 60 people had evacuated to Grays Harbor Fire District No.  8 in Moclips. Volunteer firefighter Cathy Bisiack said a group of mostly elderly residents were enjoying a pancake breakfast and watching the news on TV when the waves started to hit the Washington Coast.

UPDATE>> The threat of a tsunami prompted evacuation of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe's reservation west of Port Angeles as a precaution. It lies at sea level along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Residents returned about 9 this morning. KONP reports the tsunami waves were insignificant, but a change in current was visible in the Port Angeles harbor.

UPDATE>>> Sec. of State Hillary Clinton says the Air Force is sending water to help cool the nuclear reactor in Japan

UPDATE>>> Japanese authorities will release slightly radioactive vapor to ease pressure at nuclear reactor whose cooling system failed. The failure occurred after a power outage caused by Friday's massive earthquake off northeastern Japan. Japan's nuclear safety agency says pressure inside one of six boiling water reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant had risen to 1.5 times the level considered normal. The agency said the radioactive element in the vapor that will be released would not affect the environment or human health.

UPDATE>>> Authorities say the pressure is rising at a nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan after its cooling system failed. Japan's nuclear safety agency says pressure inside the reactor

at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant has risen to 1.5 times the level considered normal. To reduce the pressure, slightly radioactive vapor may be released.

The agency said the radioactive element in the vapor would not affect the environment or human health. Japan has issued an evacuation order to about 3,000 residents living near the plant. The government also issued a state of emergency at the power plant. The agency says plant workers are scrambling to restore cooling water supply at the plant but there is no prospect for an immediate


UPDATE>>> Japan says pressure rising at nuclear reactor after cooling system failure.   

UPDATE>>> A Japanese coast guard official says a search is under way for a ship carrying 80 dock workers that was swept away when a tsunami struck the northeastern coast. The vessel was washed away from a shipbuilding site in Miyagi prefecture (state). That's the area most affected by a massive offshore earthquake on Friday. The quake triggered the tsunami

UPDATE>>> Japanese police say 200 to 300 bodies have been found in a northeastern coastal area where a massive earthquake spawned a tsunami.

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MSNBC.COM - A magnitude 8.9 earthquake — the biggest in modern Japanese history — slammed the island nation's eastern coast Friday, unleashing a 23-foot tsunami that swept boats, cars, buildings and tons of debris miles inland and prompting a "nuclear emergency."

According to police, 200 to 300 bodies were found in the northeastern coastal city of Sendai. The death toll was likely to continue climbing given the scale of Friday's disaster.

The government ordered thousands of residents near a nuclear power plant in Onahama city to evacuate because the plant's system was unable to cool the reactor. The reactor was not leaking radiation but its core remained hot even after a shutdown. The plant is 170 miles northeast of Tokyo.

Dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile stretch of coastline were shaken by violent tremors that reached as far away as Tokyo, hundreds of miles from the epicenter.

"The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference.

Even for a country used to earthquakes, this one was of horrific proportions because of the tsunami that crashed ashore, swallowing everything in its path as it surged several miles inland before retreating. The apocalyptic images of surging water broadcast by Japanese TV networks resembled scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie.

Large fishing boats and other sea vessels rode high waves into the cities, slamming against overpasses or scraping under them and snapping power lines along the way. Upturned and partially submerged vehicles were seen bobbing in the water. Ships anchored in ports crashed against each other.

The highways to the worst-hit coastal areas were severely damaged and communications, including telephone lines, were snapped. Train services in northeastern Japan and in Tokyo, which normally serve 10 million people a day, were also suspended, leaving untold numbers stranded in stations or roaming the streets. Tokyo's Narita airport was closed indefinitely.

Tomoko Koga, a 34-year-old translator and interpreter, tells she couldn't see any damage from her house in Chiba, outside of Tokyo, but was watching reports of devastation on the news. "I don't even know what to say. I feel sorry that I'm safe and OK because there are so many people affected by this disaster."

Koga was waiting to hear back from her father, who was stranded in his office in Tokyo. "He texted us right after the earthquake that there wouldn't be any way for him to come back home. But after that, we didn't hear from him. It's really nerve-wracking."

Waves of muddy waters flowed over farmland near the city of Sendai, carrying buildings, some on fire, inland as cars attempted to drive away. Sendai airport, north of Tokyo, was inundated with cars, trucks, buses and thick mud deposited over its runways. Fires spread through a section of the city, public broadcaster NHK reported.

More than 300 houses were washed away in Ofunato City alone. Television footage showed mangled debris, uprooted trees, upturned cars and shattered timber littering streets.

The tsunami roared over embankments, washing anything in its path inland before reversing directions and carrying the cars, homes and other debris out to sea. Flames shot from some of the houses, probably because of burst gas pipes.

"Our initial assessment indicates that there has already been enormous damage," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. "We will make maximum relief effort based on that assessment."

He said the defense ministry was sending troops to the quake-hit region. A utility aircraft and several helicopters were on the way.

A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city in Chiba prefecture and burned out of control with 100-foot (30 meter) -high flames whipping into the sky.

From northeastern Japan's Miyagi prefecture, NHK showed footage of a large ship being swept away and ramming directly into a breakwater in Kesennuma city.

NHK said more than 4 million buildings were without power in Tokyo and its suburbs.

Also in Miyagi, a fire broke out in a turbine building of a nuclear power plant, but it was later extinguished, said Tohoku Electric Power Co. the company said.

A reactor area of a nearby plant was leaking water, the company said. But it was unclear if the leak was caused by tsunami water or something else. There were no reports of radioactive leaks at any of Japan's nuclear plants.

Jefferies International Limited, a global investment banking group, said it estimated overall losses to be about $10 billion.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the 2:46 p.m. quake was a magnitude 8.9, the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since officials began keeping records in the late 1800s, and one of the biggest ever recorded in the world.

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