Apocalyptic earthquake shakes Japan

By Daniele Pestilli on March 12, 2011

Emergency Numbers Update:

Local Japan Emergency dials:
171 + 1 + line phone number to leave a message
171 + 2 + line phone number to listen to the message

Australia - Consular Emergency Centre: 1300 555 135 (within Australia) or +61 2 6261 3305 (overseas)
Ireland - Irish Department of Foreign Affairs: 01-418 0233
Italy - +81 (0)3-3453-5274 or +81 (0)3-3453-5142
Republic of Korea - 001-010-800-2100-0404
New Zealand - New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade: 0800 432 111 (within NZ) or +64 439 8000 (overseas)
Philippines - Embassy’s emergency landline +81-3-5562-1570, +81-3-5562-1577, and +81-3-5562-1590 (emergency@philembassy.net)
United Kingdom - FCO helpline: +44 (0)207 008 0000
United States of America1-888-407-4747 or 1-202-501-4444 (JapanEmergencyUSC@state.gov)

The Sendai shore has been laid to waste. Hakodate has become a ghost port. Much of Sukagawa has been swept away after the collapse of the Fujinuma dam. The nightmare that struck the Tōhoku region in Japan on 11 March, at 05:46 UTC (14:46 local time) is unprecedented in Japan’s seismic history. For two, excruciatingly long minutes, an 8.9 Richter scale megathrust earthquake made the islands tremble, devastating cities, ports, and putting a country to its knees. Experts say this tremor was one of the top five most powerful earthquakes the world has ever seen. This was followed by more than 70 smaller aftershocks, one of which was as strong as 7.1 on the Richter scale, Al Jazeera reports.

Located between three tectonic plates – the Eurasian, Filipino and North American plates - and frequently influenced by a fourth – the Pacific plate – Japan is a land that is accustomed to numerous earthquakes every year: in the last ten years, 29 violent tremors were recorded and in the three days preceding this massive earthquake, three smaller shocks occurred.

The March 11, 2011 tragedy was far more powerful than the September 1, 1923 Great Kantō earthquake (7.9 on the Richter scale) which obliterated Tokyo, causing widespread damage to the entire Kantō region and claiming 140,000 lives. It was also much more intense than the January 17, 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake, which caused 6,434 people to lose their lives, costing a total of $100 billion – the most expensive natural disaster in history according to Reuters News.

The capital of Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture, Sendai was the hardest hit. Although the epicenter was reportedly 130 kilometers (80.7 miles) off the east coast of Oshika Peninsula, at a depth of 24.4 km (15.16 mi) under the seabed, the quake rapidly reached Tokyo 380 km away (236 mi) and was reportedly also felt in Beijing.

However, the tsunami triggered by the earthquake had equally devastating consequences: 10 meter (33ft) waves poured over the Japanese coast, inundating towns, causing damage to railways and roads, swallowing up everything in its path including cars, boats and trains. The hardest hit areas were the coasts of Fukushima, Miyagi, Tōhoku, Ibanaki, Sendai and Iwate. Four trains that operate between the Miyagi and Iwate prefectures have disappeared; one ship was found after several hours of searching.

The combined catastrophe of these two natural disasters has left a reported 4.4 million households without electricity according to Tohoku Electric, and more than a million without water. Although it is difficult to assess exact figures at this moment, there are an estimated 1,000 deaths in Miyagi prefecture.

“ConveniencePeople throughout the country have been stocking up on water and food provisions in the event of more earthquakes. The image to the right shows an emptied out convenience store and was posted on Facebook by a netizen.

At 09:30 UTC, Google released the Google Person Finder in an effort to collect information regarding survivors and their locations.

Yonhap News sounded the alarm for 130 South Koreans that are unaccounted for due to power outages, and reports that the Korean consulate in Sendai is trying to establish contact with some 4,500 Korean nationals living in the region. For Korean nationals who do not speak Japanese, the South Korean government has provided a toll-free emergency number (지진 피해를 받은 한국인, 재일 동포 여러분에게 외교통상부 영사 콜센터 무료전화: 001-010-800-2100-0404 연결 불가시 유료전화: 001-82-2-3210-0404). China’s National Tourism Administration (NTA) said that the 4,578 Chinese nationals who were part of 215 tour groups in Japan had all contacted domestic travel agencies, reporting no death or injury. The international community has expressed its deepest condolences for the victims of the disaster and has prepared rescue teams to help the Japanese situation: China and South Korea, as well as the U.S. and the UN have all promised to send an avalanche of aid to alleviate the country with the world’s third biggest economy. As a result of the earthquake, the Yen has devalued and the Tokyo Stock Exchange also underwent a selling panic that left Nikkei down by 1.7 percent, The Washington Post wrote. Government spending for the country’s reconstruction is said to only add to Japan’s fiscal troubles and soaring national debt.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant Explosion

Although an enormous conflagration caused havoc in the petrochemical plant in Miyagi and in the Ichihara refinery, the bigger tragedy within the tragedy was the explosion of one of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima prefecture on 12 March at 15:36 local time. The Japanese government has declared a state of emergency as the cooling systems at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants I and II have suffered severe failure, causing meltdowns and radiation levels above the allowable limits. Other nuclear reactors throughout the country are said to have been automatically shut down upon seismic oscillations.

Reuters has reported danger of a severe radiation leaks after an explosion has blown off the roof of Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant I, which released a large white cloud (see the footage here). However, Al Jazeera’s Live Blog has announced that the explosion might have been caused by hydrogen ignition: this may not necessarily have caused radiation leakage.

An operator working for Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) who was frantically trying to reduce the reactor’s pressure levels was inevitably affected by the explosion. He and another coworker have been transported to a hospital. Japan’s Jiji News reports a total of 4 injuries with one bone fracture, and radiation leaks in a 20 km radius from the plant. All efforts are being made to evacuate the residents of the area: more than 45,000 people have already been brought to safety.

Jiji News has also released an article saying that one hour exposure to this radiation is equivalent to the limit of radiation an ordinary person can be exposed to in an entire year (1000 Microsievert – a unit of radiation dose).