TOKYO (Reuters) - Even in a nation accustomed to tremors, the devastation wrought by Friday’s massive earthquake in Japan, and the tsunami it triggered, was shocking.
The magnitude 8.9 quake, the most powerful since Japan started keeping records nearly a century and a half ago, split highways, flattened buildings and ignited fires all over the northeastern Pacific coast.
A torrent of water up to 10 meters high, thick with the debris of the homes and cars it swept away in its path, submerged farmland near the coastal city of Sendai, where local media reported up to 300 people had drowned. An inferno blazed along the city’s waterfront.
Television images showed upended cars bobbing up and down in what had become an inland sea. Boats, listing out of control, smashed into bridges and submerged homes.
“A big area of Sendai city near the coast, is flooded. We are hearing that people who were evacuated are stranded,” said Rie Sugimoto, a reporter for NHK television in Sendai.
“About 140 people, including children, were rushed to an elementary school and are on the rooftop but they are surrounded by water and have nowhere else to go.”
A lot of the coastline in the far north, where the worst damage was, is composed of long, thin curving bays that have traditionally intensified tsunami. At least 300 people have been killed, and the death toll is set to rise given the scale of the catastrophe.
In the northern city of Ofunato, which had no power, residents huddled in darkness in a gymnasium turned shelter. Some lit kerosene stoves for heat and recounted their ordeal.
“I was trying to get up to high ground. People up there were saying hurry up, get up here. Once I got up we watched cars flow by,” an elderly man wearing a baseball cap told local television.
“The aftershocks gave us no reprieve. Then the tsunami came when we tried to run for cover. It was the strongest quake I experienced,” added a woman with her baby strapped to her back.
The quake rattled Tokyo further south, where crowds of commuters thronged the streets in gridlocked traffic, trying to find a way home after most means of public transport ground to a halt. At least one train was derailed, and another was unaccounted for.
“It was probably the worst I have felt since I came to Japan more than 20 years ago,” said Reuters journalist Linda Sieg.
“The building shook for what seemed a long time and many people in the newsroom grabbed their helmets and some got under their desks,” she said.
Earthquakes are common in Japan, one of the world’s most seismically active areas. The country accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater and on average, an earthquake occurs every 5 minutes.
But Friday’s quake, coming a few weeks after New Zealand’s city of Christchurch was devastated by a strong earthquake, was especially petrifying.
“I was terrified and I’m still frightened,” said Hidekatsu Hata, 36, manager of a Chinese noodle restaurant in Tokyo’s Akasaka area. “I’ve never experienced such a big quake before.”
“People were very frightened. Very rare since people in Japan are used to quakes. Today was very different,” Reuters Insider reporter Kei Okamura posted on Twitter.
Asagi Machida, a 27-year-old web designer in Tokyo, was walking near a coffee shop when the earthquake hit. “The images from the New Zealand earthquake are still fresh in my mind so I was really scared. I couldn’t believe such a big earthquake was happening in Tokyo.”
Hundreds of people spilled out onto the streets of Tokyo after the quake, with crowds gathering in front of televisions in shop windows for details on the quake. Some passengers on a subway line in Tokyo screamed and grabbed other passengers.
The quake surpasses the Great Kanto quake of September 1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area. Seismologists had said another such quake could strike the city any time.
A 1995 quake in Kobe caused $100 billion in damage and was the most expensive natural disaster in history. For Takeshi Okada, Friday’s quake was a chilling reminder of that disaster.
“I was so scared,” said the 36-year-old coffee shop manager in downtown Tokyo. “I remember seeing what happened with the Kobe earthquake and thought, what if that happens to Tokyo? I’m kind of panicking. I don’t want to go outside because something might crash down on me.”
(Additional reporting by Reuters Tokyo bureau)
Writing by Miral Fahmy; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa