Houses were washed away by tsunami in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture in eastern Japan,
after Japan was struck by a magnitude 8.9 earthquake off the northeastern coast
By Martin Fackler and Kevin Drew
The New York Times
TOKYO — A devastating tsunami hit the coast of northeast Japan on Friday in the aftermath of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake about 80 miles offshore, killing at least five people and injuring dozens. The earthquake triggered widespread power blackouts, and tsunami alerts were issued across the Pacific Ocean from Russia to Hawaii.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, an emergency warning system announcement for a tsunami warning was braodcast just after 1 a.m. Waves could begin arriving in Crescent City, Calif., at 7:23 a.m. and the Bay Area shortly after 8 a.m.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the disaster caused major damage across wide areas, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Kan added that nuclear power plants in the stricken area had not been affected.
Part of houses swallowed by the tsunami burning in Sendai
Trains were shut down across central and northern Japan, including Tokyo, and air travel was severely disrupted. The government held an emergency session to coordinate response as three people were reported killed in the Ibaraki, Tochigi and Chiba prefectures, according to the Kyodo news service. At least 30 people were injured in the cities of Tokyo and Osaki.
The quake occurred at 2:46 p.m. Tokyo time and hit off Honshu, Japan’s most populous island. The quake 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. It was a sustained rolling that made it impossible to stand, almost like vertigo,” said Matt Alt, an American writer and translator living in Tokyo.
Television images showed waves of more than 12 feet roaring inland. 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.
A refinery plant in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo was on fire after the earthquake
The floodwaters, thick with floating debris shoved inland, pushed aside heavy trucks as if they were toys, in some places carrying blazing buildings toward factories, fields, highways, bridges and homes. The spectacle was all the more remarkable for being carried live on television, even as the waves engulfed flat farmland that offered no resistance.
The force of the waves washed away cars on coastal roads and crashed into buildings along the shore. Television footage showed a tsunami wave bearing down on the Japanese coastline near the community of Sendai.
NHK television transmitted aerial images of columns of flame rising from an oil refinery and flood waters engulfing Sendai airport, where survivors clustered on the roof of the airport building. The runway was partially submerged. The refinery fire sent a plume of thick black smoke from blazing spherical storage tanks. A television commentator called the blaze an “inferno.”
The images showed survivors in a home surrounded by water, waving white sheets from the upper floors of buildings. News reports said the earthquake had forced the Tokyo subways to empty while airports were closed and many residents took to the streets, desperately trying to leave the city.
Initial television coverage from coastal areas showed very few people actually in the water. The initial impact of the wave seemed to have been enormous, tipping two huge cargo vessels on their sides at one port and tearing others from their moorings.
In this image made off Japan’s NHK TV video footage, vehicles are washed away by a tsunami
in eastern Japan after a magnitude 8.9 earthquake off of the northeastern coast Friday
Smaller vessels, including what looked like commercial fishing trawlers, were carried inland, smashed into the superstructure of bridges as the waters surged. A senior Japanese official said foreign countries had offered to help and Japan was prepared to seek overseas assistance.
A second major earthquake of 7.4 magnitude was reported as aftershocks shook the region. Japanese media reported mobile phone networks were not working.
Power blackouts were affecting about 2 million residents around Tokyo alone, the government said. Cell phone service was severely affected across central and northern Japan as residents rushed to call friends and relatives as aftershocks struck.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center extended a tsunami warning across most of the Pacific Ocean, and said the tsunami was set to arrive in coastal areas of Russia, Guam, Taiwan, Hawaii, Indonesia, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea and Australia later in the day. Japan’s meteorological agency warned that a tsunami as high as 20 feet could strike the coast near Miyagi prefecture, closest to the epicenter.
Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry said that the tsunami had reached the Russian-controlled Kurile Islands north of Hokkaido, Japan at about 6 p.m. local time. “The first wave has hit a population center on Malo-Kurilsk, raising the water level only about half a meter, indicating that the wave is losing strength,” the ministry said in a statement. In response to the tsunami threat, about 11,000 people have been evacuated from four population centers in the Kuriles, the ministry said.
The United States Geological Survey said the earthquake had a magnitude of 8.9, which the agency labeled a “mega” quake. The tremor occurred at about 230 miles northeast of Tokyo and at a depth of about 15 miles. The Japanese Meteorological Agency said the quake had a magnitude of 8.4.
Japanese television showed major tsunami damage in northern Japan. Public broadcaster NHK reported that a large ship swept away by the tsunami rammed directly into a breakwater in Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture. Video footage also showed buildings on fire in the Odaiba district of Tokyo, The Associated Press reported.
“It just seemed to go on and on,” Katherine Wallace told the BBC, who was in an office building in Tokyo, said of the quake tremor.
Several quakes have struck the same region in recent days, including a 7.3 magnitude one on Wednesday.
The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong and the Straits Times in Singapore slumped after news of the quake. Both were about 1.1 percent lower by mid-afternoon.
Martin Fackler reported from Tokyo, and Kevin Drew from Hong Kong. Daniel Krieger contributed from Osaka, Bettina Wassener from Hong Kong, Alan Cowell and Richard Berry from Paris, and Michael Schwirtz from Moscow.
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