The massive earthquake and tsunami that wiped out entire villages in northeast Japan caused up to $235 billion in damages, the World Bank said Monday, making the natural disaster one of the most expensive in modern history.

The rebuilding effort could take five years, the bank said in its report, and will cost far more than earthquakes in Haiti last year and Kobe in 1995, as well as Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast in 2005 and the tsunami in South Asia in 2004.

“While it is too early to estimate accurately, the cost of the damage is likely to be greater than the damage caused by the 6.9 magnitude Kobe earthquake,” the World Bank concluded. It placed the Kobe damages at $100 billion and estimated the total cost of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami at between $122 billion and $235 billion.

So far, 8,649 people have died and another 13,262 are missing since the 9.0-magnitude quake struck off the coast near Sendai, Japan’s National Police Agency said Monday. Thousands of others have been evacuated from the region to shelters in Tokyo and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, emergency crews faced another setback Monday with their efforts to control the badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, after gray smoke escaped from the unit 3 reactor building and workers were evacuated as a precaution. They had been laying powers cables in an attempt to restore electricity at the plant when the smoke was seen rising from unit 3, perhaps the most worrisome of the facility's six nuclear reactors.

The cause of the smoke was not immediately known, a Tokyo Electric Power Co. official said at a news conference. Power cables had been hooked up at the unit 3 reactor, but electricity had not been turned on, he said.

Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said there is no evidence of increased radiation escaping the building with the smoke. It has been reported to the fire department.

Two reactors have successfully been placed in cold shutdown, but four others remain in various levels of distress. Workers have doused the unit 3 and 4 reactor buildings with more than 3,700 tons of seawater in recent days in a frantic attempt to cool overheated spent-fuel rods, which have spewed radioactive material into the atmosphere. Deputy Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama said Sunday that officials “are very close to getting the situation under control.”

In a report issued nine days before the earthquake and tsunami struck, Japan’s nuclear safety agency criticized Tokyo Electric for repeatedly failing to make inspections of critical equipment, the Associated Press reported Monday. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) cited the company for ignoring inspection schedules and failing to examine 33 pieces of equipment at Fukushima Daiichi, including crucial cooling system parts, emergency diesel generators in unit 3, pumps for reactors in units 1 and 2 and generator equipment for unit 4, AP said. However, nuclear safety officials declined to blame the cited violations for the current crisis.

Separately Monday, Japan’s Health Ministry advised some residents within about 20 miles of the plant not to drink tap water because of elevated levels of radioactive iodine. But the ministry said that even though iodine three times the normal level was detected in the village of Iitate northwest of the Fukushima plant, the level was still too low to endanger health.

In Vienna, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Monday that the Japanese nuclear crisis exposed serious problems in how governments respond to disasters, AP reported. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, who visited Japan last week, told an emergency meeting of the agency that governments must release information more quickly.

The World Bank said the economic consequences of the disaster could drive Japan’s bond yields down, but that it would have only “a modest short-term impact” on the broader East Asian region.

“After the Kobe earthquake, Japan’s trade slowed only for a few quarters before recovering,” the bank said. “Within a year, imports had recovered fully and exports had rebounded to 85 percent of pre-quake levels.”

Though estimates vary, Hurricane Katrina caused $81.2 billion in damages in 2005, according to a widely cited study by the National Hurricane Center. Last year, the costs of natural disasters soared to a worldwide total of $109 billion, three times the total in 2009, according to the United Nations. In 2010, the Haiti quake cost $8 billion, floods in Pakistan $9.5 billion and an 8.8-magnitude quake in Chile $30 billion.

The 2004 tsunami caused between $8 billion and $15 billion in damages across India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, according to various estimates.

The United Nations concluded that economic development in fast-growing countries was increasingly being strained by the price of such natural disasters.