Tsunami Ravages Japan's Eastern Seaboard

The death toll is soaring into the hundreds following the worst earthquake to hit Japan in recent history. Hundreds more are injured or missing. The 8.9 magnitude quake triggered a tsunami that ravaged Japan's eastern seaboard and traveled all the way across the Pacific.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Hundreds are dead and many more still missing after the worst earthquake in Japan's recorded history.

(Soundbite of glass breaking)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

SIEGEL: In a moment, we'll hear from one eyewitness in Tokyo, where homes shook and skyscrapers swayed, sending people screaming into the streets.

One disaster quickly followed another as the 8.9 magnitude quake triggered a tsunami. Giant waves ravaged Japan's eastern seaboard and traveled all the way across the Pacific to California.

Closer to the epicenter nearly 230 miles northeast of Tokyo, two nuclear power plants are in trouble. Crews are having difficulty safely cooling down some of the plant's reactors, forcing thousands living nearby to evacuate.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn begins our coverage.

ANTHONY KUHN: The tsunami wrought havoc along hundreds of miles of Japan's coastline, but the northern city of Sendai was closest to the epicenter and hardest hit. Within hours of the tsunami, police there found two or 300 bodies of victims who were drowned. Oil refineries burned. Several nuclear power plants shut down, and thousands of stranded people roamed the streets of Tokyo where public transportation ground to a halt.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan appealed to citizens to lend each other a helping hand.

Prime Minister NAOTO KAN (Japan): (Through Translator) The government will put its strength together and work hard in tackling this disaster. We therefore ask the people of Japan to exercise a spirit of fraternity, help each other and to act fast.

KUHN: Scores of strong aftershocks followed the quake. Authorities warned coastal residents to head inland for higher ground in case of more tsunamis. Some reports called today's quake the biggest ever to hit Japan.

But Brian Atwater, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist in Seattle, says precedents may be found if you go back far enough.

Dr. BRIAN ATWATER (Scientist, U.S. Geological Survey): In Japanese written history, there are accounts of a very big earthquake, and especially tsunami, up near Sendai in the year 869.

KUHN: That means, says Atwater, the pressure may have been building up along seismic fault lines from the year 869 until today's disaster.

Dr. ATWATER: Our lifetimes are short compared with the cycles that some of these faults go through, and we somehow have to make the mental leap to think on longer timescales when looking at hazards like this.

KUHN: That leaves Atwater to pounder another question: How much can we or should we do to prepare for cataclysms that only occur once in a millennium?

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Bangkok.

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