Japan Reacts To Unprecedented Disaster

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Japan's most powerful earthquake on record, followed by a tsunami, has killed hundreds of people and caused extensive damage along coastal areas.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The images are searing clusters of houses swept off their foundations, floating, some on fire; skyscrapers rocking in a sickening sway; a chaotic pile of airplanes and cars. The most powerful earthquake in Japan's recorded history struck today just off the northeastern coast near the city of Sendai. With a magnitude of 8.9, the quake also triggered a massive tsunami that slammed through coastal villages sweeping cars and houses out to sea.

Hundreds are confirmed dead and with many more missing, the death toll is expected to rise. President Obama promised U.S. help for Japan wherever needed.

We go first to Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

LUCY CRAFT: To be Japanese is to be born with a sense of vulnerability. Japanese train for natural disasters as soon as they start school. To combat the near constant threat of floods, landslides, typhoons, and earthquakes, tens of billions of dollars are spent on what is arguably the world's most elaborate disaster prevention system. Even so, perhaps nothing could've prepared the Japanese for a monster of an earthquake like this.

(Soundbite of crashing metal)

CRAFT: The scenes of horror playing out on national TV seemed of biblical proportions. An entire town engulfed in flames, hundreds of bodies discovered, the victims of tsunami waves more than 30 feet high.

(Soundbite of sirens)

CRAFT: Commuters in downtown Tokyo, the tech capital of the world, seeking refuge in Buddhist temples. Even the parking lot at Tokyo Disneyland was sinking into the mud.

The drama began mid afternoon, local time, halting Japan's national parliament mid-session. The cabinet quickly adjourned, changed into work clothes and set up a crisis management team, a legacy of the last mega earthquake in Kobe, 16 years ago, which was widely considered a low point in government ineptitude. Prime Minister Naoto Kan urged calm, and for those who could, to lend a helping hand.

Mr. NAOTO KAN (Prime Minister, Japan): (Through translator) We therefore ask the people of Japan to exercise a spirit of fraternity, help each other and to act fast.

CRAFT: Another reason for Japan's intense sense of vulnerability is its paucity of natural resources, which is why this earthquake-prone nation has taken the seemingly risky step of embracing nuclear power. Reactors are supposed to shut down at the first tremor and most did, cutting off power to millions of homes across eastern Japan.

One reactor in Fukushima Prefecture, or state, malfunctioned. Authorities say no radiation has been detected, but the incident forced thousands to evacuate. The communities near the epicenter of the quake were in northeastern Japan, a traditional fishing region and home to many factories, including those of Japan's automakers.

The damage from the quake and its aftermath will clearly be immense, but the area is relatively lightly populated, leaving the Japanese to imagine the havoc that would be wreaked if a mega-quake strikes Tokyo.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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