By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 12:02 AM
HIROSHIMA, JAPAN - A bulldozing tsunami triggered by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake devastated the northeast coast of Japan on Friday, turning cars into driftwood, washing away neighborhoods and leaving this industrialized country bracing for an epic humanitarian disaster.
Officially the death toll stood at 413, but a government spokesman said Saturday morning that at least 1,000 people are dead. Thousands more have been reported missing. Authorities say they expect the death toll to climb steeply.
This earthquake, the fifth-largest worldwide since 1900 and the strongest ever to strike Japan, will redefine the challenges facing a country already burdened by debt, economic stagnation and depopulation.
A grim accounting of lost infrastructure and lives lies ahead. But as of Saturday morning, Japan remained a country reckoning with images, not numbers. Describing what could become one of Japan's deepest traumas since World War II, television broadcasters appeared on camera wearing helmets, fearful of aftershocks. People in Tokyo shared YouTube videos of downtown skyscrapers swaying and witnesses screaming.
A series of aftershocks Saturday - the strongest measured at a magnitude of 6.8 - only increased the sense of anxiety.
Initial reports from the hardest-hit part of the country pointed to the monumental relief efforts ahead. Much of the northern city of Kesennuma was on fire. Japanese officials said they had lost contact with four trains. Local police reported that 200 to 300 bodies had already been found in one area of Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture and the population center closest to the quake's epicenter.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan addressed the nation shortly after the quake, saying the government will do "everything possible to minimize the damage." He called for international assistance and for Japanese to help one another. "We ask the people of Japan to exercise the spirit of fraternity and act fast and to assist one's family and neighbors," Kan said.
Throughout the country, transportation was halted, and mobile-phone networks were jammed. Tokyo's main Narita International Airport halted flights for much of Friday afternoon. Stranded salarymen in downtown Tokyo crowded around televisions, watching public broadcaster NHK replay a loop of the images: slow-dancing Tokyo skyscrapers and building-blitzing waves. Television footage showed towering walls of water surging toward the shoreline, pulling cars into the surf and discarding ships on land.
Consumers flocked to grocery and convenience stores, clearing shelves. The government urged citizens to conserve supplies, and residents in the north reported shortages.
"It is snowing in Sendai, and blankets and food are not abundant," Tamotsu Watanabe, a staff member for the Sendai city government, said Saturday morning. "We haven't been able to catch up with the magnitude of things."
Dozens of countries and states issued tsunami alerts - mostly in the Pacific Rim, but also in Hawaii and California. But the waves that reached Hawaii about 8 a.m. Washington time were relatively modest, and the tsunami had only isolated impact on the West Coast. In Crescent City, Calif., near the Oregon border, waves wrecked the harbor, and the Coast Guard was searching off the northern California coast for one man who had been swept out to sea.
In Washington, President Obama said he was "heartbroken" by the tragedy and offered "whatever assistance is needed." The U.S. military redeployed several ships toward Japan on Friday and began preparing for humanitarian relief missions in the expectation that it would be asked to help respond to the disaster. Dozens of other countries have pledged help.
About 70 search-and-rescue teams have been put on standby around the world awaiting a Japanese government request for assistance in digging out survivors, according to Nicholas Reader, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"Our initial assessment indicates that there has already been enormous damage," said Yukio Edano, the government's top spokesman. "We will make maximum relief effort based on that assessment."
The quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time (12:46 a.m. in Washington) at a depth of 15 miles and about 80 miles off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, a mostly rural but still densely populated part of Honshu, Japan's largest island.
Tokyo - which is also on Honshu and about 230 miles south of the epicenter - appeared to escape massive damage, although some fires were reported and buildings shook violently for several minutes during the initial quake.
At least 2 million people were without power in the capital. Rail service was temporarily halted. Mobile phone communication - a staple in Japan - was largely disrupted.
Workers and residents fled from buildings and refused to return indoors, terrified by the aftershocks that continued for hours. In all, Japan felt scores of aftershocks, some as strong as 7.1 in magnitude.
With the normally reliable mass transit system shut down, thousands of commuters from Tokyo's expansive suburbs were stranded, unable to find taxis. Shelters opened their doors to accommodate them; some spent the night in temples, university buildings and concert halls.
As one of the countries most susceptible to earthquakes, Japan has invested significant resources in guarding itself. A strict building code enacted in 1981 requires structures to be built using ductile reinforced concrete, which provides flexibility that can help withstand significant tremors.
The 1995 Kobe earthquake - until Friday the country's most devastating - leveled many buildings constructed before the 1981 code was in place. The death toll from that earthquake, which struck a much more heavily populated area, rose above 6,000.
Since the Kobe quake, many public buildings have been reinforced, and Japan holds disaster-preparedness exercises every year.
The country has fortified coastal cities against a quake-triggered tsunami - building a system of flood gates in Tokyo, for example, to divert the walls of water that a major quake can generate. But live television footage showed scenes from the north in which waves as high as 20 feet barreled past any defense mechanisms, moving faster than anybody could try to outrun or out-drive them.
Obama said he spoke to Kan, the Japanese prime minister, and offered U.S. help. He told reporters that the main way the United States could assist would be in providing "lift capacity" to help in the cleanup. "You have huge disruptions," he said, with "boats and houses and cars that are washed into the main thoroughfares, and that requires heavy equipment."