Japan quake: With two natural disasters and a nuclear emergency, recovery begins

A massive 8.9-magnitude quake Friday triggered a tsunami along the coastline north of Tokyo. A nuclear reactor was left unstable by the aftershocks, stoking fears of a meltdown.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 11:00 PM

TOKYO - Rescue teams searched Saturday for thousands of missing people along hundreds of miles of Japan's northeastern coast a day after a powerful earthquake and massive tsunami wiped entire towns off the map.

With much of its northeastern coastline already under water and reduced to matchstick wreckage, Japan also faced the nightmare of potential nuclear disaster after an explosion at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture prompted evacuations within a 12-mile radius.

As powerful aftershocks continued to rock Japan's main island of Honshu on Saturday - including temblors of 6.4 and 6.0 magnitude - teams of rescue workers scoured the Pacific coastline for survivors. Thousands of hungry people were huddling in emergency shelters without water or electricity, and large parts of the countryside were unreachable because of flooding and damage, news agencies reported.

While the rescue teams broadened their search along the devastated coast, in many places they found only remnants.

Officials said late Saturday that 686 people were confirmed dead in the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and huge tsunami waves. But thousands of others were missing, and the death toll was certain to rise.

Roughly 9,500 people in Minamisanriku - a town of 17,000 in Miyagi Prefecture - remain unaccounted for, the Kyodo news agency reported, citing local government officials.

In the areas north of Tokyo, closest to the epicenter of Friday's earthquake, eyewitnesses described entire neighborhoods that have disappeared after being swallowed and chewed up by a massive tsunami wave. Attempts to reach those stranded, trapped or short on supplies were complicated by damage to the roads and rail lines.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported dozens of additional aftershocks off the coast of Honshu Island. Just after 10 p.m. local time, a 6.4 magnitude aftershock hit 50 miles away from Fukushima Prefecture, shaking buildings as far away as Tokyo.

The power of Friday's 8.9 earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in quake-prone Japan, prompted evacuations as far away as the U.S. West Coast and South America for fear of a devastating tsunami. Damage to some harbors and boats in California was reported, and at least one person was swept out to sea and feared drowned. But the impact was relatively minor.

In Chile, where scientists said the thrust of the tsunami crossing the Pacific was headed, authorities canceled tsunami warnings Saturday after closing ports and evacuating 700,000 people from coastal communities. As on the U.S. West Coast, the damage was far lighter than feared.

In Japan, given the continued communication problems with towns in the north and scant initial information about the implications of the nuclear plant explosion, people were trying at once to piece together what had happened and what was happening still.

Japanese government officials said Saturday evening that the explosion did not damage the nuclear containment vessel at the Fukushima Daiichi plant's Unit 1 reactor, and they conveyed an initial sense that a widespread radioactive leak could be avoided.

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