One of the strongest earthquakes in the last century struck off the coast of Japan Friday, swallowing the island nation’s northeast corner in a tsunami and killing at least 300, with many still missing, Japanese officials said.
The 8.9-magnitude quake was the largest ever recorded in Japan and sits as the fifth most powerful since 1900, according to the United States Geological Survey.
According to the New York Times, the earthquake struck at 2:36 p.m. local time, or 5:36 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.
Videos that local media captured show the tsunami washing away airplanes, cars and homes from Sendai, a port-city with a population of about 1 million.
Ohio State geology professor Michael Bevis said Friday’s quake, and the 8.8-magnitude quake that hit Chile Feb. 27, 2010, which killed about 795 people, according to the Chilean government, are known as “megathrust events.”
“In this case, the Pacific plate underthrusted the continental plate Japan sits on,” Bevis said. That results in the continental plate thrusting upward, which pushes the sea floor upward.
“That just blows a shock wave that moves at the speed of sound in water” Bevis said, which is 500 miles per hour in deep water. When it reaches shallower water closer to the shore, the surge slows down, bunches up and increases in amplitude, pushing water onto land.
“It’s not a wave,” he said. “It’s more like a wall of water.”
Bevis said that wall can continue coming for as long as 15 minutes.
“It just keeps coming and coming,” he said.
The quake and tsunami combination, which occurred about 30 minutes apart, have crippled the area’s infrastructure, leaving cell phone towers and landlines down, and halted transportation as many highways, airports and train tracks were submerged in rushing water.
Melanie Beaudette, a Ph.D. candidate in women’s studies, said her little brother Joey, 25, lives in Sendai, where he teaches English in an elementary school. She said their family received an e-mail from him after the initial earthquake, but haven’t heard from him since the tsunami struck land.
“I’m sure he’s ok,” Beaudette said. “The lack of communication is a little scary.”
The disaster quickly spread throughout the island of Honshu, the nation’s most populous island and location of Tokyo, shutting down nuclear plants and setting oil refineries ablaze.
Japan Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a press conference that the earthquake has caused “major damage in broad areas in Northern Japan.”
President Barack Obama said the United States “stands ready to help.” At a news conference Friday afternoon Obama said the U.S. was sending two ships to Japan, and the State Department was working to account for all U.S. citizens in the area.
“[It’s] a reminder of just how fragile life can be,” Obama said.
The surge from the 8.9-magnitude quake struck land in the United States, causing “millions” of dollars in damage to the harbor in Crescent City, Calif., a Crescent City Councilwoman told NPR.
There were also reports of the surge hitting Alaska, Hawaii and parts of coastal Oregon, as well, causing significant damage. No serious injuries or home damages have been reported in the U.S.