Wrekced vessels in the Miyagi state's city of Kesennuma
Japan launched a massive military rescue operation Saturday after a giant, quake-fed tsunami killed over a thousand people, with many more missing and some of them feared dead, and turned the northeastern coast into a swampy wasteland, while authorities braced for a possible meltdown at a nuclear reactor.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said 50,000 troops would join rescue and recovery efforts following Friday's 8.9-magnitude quake that unleashed one of the greatest disasters Japan has witnessed since official records started in the late 1800s - a seven-metre tsunami that washed far inland over fields, smashing towns, airports and highways in its way.
In addition to the victims as rported by government sources, the police have said that there are around 1,500 people injured. Most bodies, were of drowned people and were discovered along the coast in Sendai, the biggest city in the area near the quake's epicenter.
An untold number of bodies were also believed to be buried in the rubble and debris. Rescue workers had yet to reach the hardest-hit areas.
Adding to the worries was the damage at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, where two reactors had lost cooling ability. Because of the overheating, a meltdown was possible at one of the reactors, an official with Japan's nuclear safety commission has been reported saying
But even if there was a meltdown, it wouldn't affect people outside a six-mile (10-kilometer) radius, the official, Ryohei Shiomi is reported to have told AP. Most of the 51,000 residents living within the danger area had been evacuated, he said.
More than 215,000 people were living in 1,350 temporary shelters in five prefectures, or states, the national police agency said. Since the quake, more than one million households have not had water, mostly concentrated in northeast.
After inspecting the quake area in a helicopter, the official went on to tell the news agency, that most of the houses along the coastline were washed away, and fire broke out there. He said he could realise the extremely serious damage the tsunami has caused.
In the meantime, the region continued to be jolted by tremors, even 24 hours after the first earthquake, the biggest ever to hit Japan. More than 125 aftershocks have been reported, many of them above magnitude 6.0, which even alone would be considered strong.
Japan, a technologically advanced nation, is well prepared for quakes and its buildings can withstand strong jolts, even a temblor like Friday's, which was the strongest the country has experienced since official records started in the late 1800s. What was beyond human control was the killer tsunami that followed.
It swept inland about 10 kilometers in some areas, swallowing boats, homes, cars, trees and even small airplanes. Witnesses said that the tsunami was unbelievably fast.
Several kilometers from the shore, one could see smashed cars, and close to the local airport small airplanes jumbled up against buildings. Felled trees and wooden debris lay everywhere as rescue workers coasted on boats through murky waters around flooded structures, nosing their way through a sea of debris.
Basic commodities were at a premium, APreported, as hundreds lined up outside of supermarkets, while gas stations were swamped with cars. The situation was similar in scores of other towns and cities along the 2,100-kilometer-long eastern coastline hit by the tsunami.
Also Saturday, operators at the Fukushima Daiichi plant's Unit 1 tried had to tamp down heat and pressure inside one of the reactors after the quake cut off electricity to the site and disabled emergency generators, knocking out the main cooling system. Authorities detected eight times the normal radiation levels outside the facility and 1,000 times normal inside Unit 1's control room.
The Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the six-reactor Daiichi site in northeastern Japan, said it had also lost cooling ability at a second reactor there and three units at its nearby Fukushima Daini site. As a result, the government has declared state of emergency at all those units.
Japan's nuclear safety agency said the situation was most dire at Fukushima Daiichi's Unit 1, where pressure had risen to twice what is consider the normal level. The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement that diesel generators that normally would have kept cooling systems running at Fukushima Daiichi had been disabled by tsunami flooding.
Japan gets about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants. .
On Friday, the entire Pacific was put on alert - including coastal areas of South America, Canada and Alaska - but waves were not as bad as expected.
Most trains in Tokyo started running again Saturday after the city had been brought to a near standstill the day before with tens of thousands of people stranded with the rail network down, jamming the streets with cars, buses and trucks trying to get out of the city.
Why the Earthquakes in Japan?
Japan lies on the "Ring of Fire" — an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching around the Pacific where about 90 percent of the world's quakes occur, including the one that triggered the Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people in 12 countries. A magnitude-8.8 quake that shook central Chile in February 2010 also generated a tsunami and killed 524 people.
The Japanese archipelago is located in an area where several continental and oceanic plates meet. This is the cause of frequent earthquakes and the presence of many volcanoes and hot springs across Japan. If earthquakes occur below or close to the ocean, they may trigger tidal waves (tsunami).
Many parts of the country have experienced devastating earthquakes and tidal waves in the past. The Great Kanto Earthquake, the worst in Japanese history, hit the Kanto plain around Tokyo in 1923. It was a magnitude 8.3 temblor and resulted in the deaths of over 143,000 people.
In January 1995 a strong earthquake hit the city of Kobe and surroundings. Known as the Southern Hyogo Earthquake or Great Hanshin Earthquake, it killed 6,400 and injured 415,000 people, while 100,000 homes were completely destroyed and 185,000 were severely damaged.
The Japanese "shindo" scale for measuring earthquakes is more commonly used in Japan than the Richter scale to describe earthquakes. Shindo refers to the intensity of an earthquake at a given location, i.e. what people actually feel at a given location, while the Richter scale measures the magnitude of an earthquake, i.e. the energy an earthquake releases at the epicenter.
The shindo scale ranges from shindo one, a slight earthquake felt only by people who are not moving, to shindo seven, a severe earthquake. Shindo two to four are still minor earthquakes that do not cause damage, while objects start to fall at shindo five, and heavier damage occurs at shindo six and seven.