A day after Japan’s strongest earthquake on record hit the island nation’s East Coast on Friday afternoon, the death toll has reached 1,300.
The magnitude 8.9 earthquake and ensuing aftershocks collapsed buildings, ignited fires, cut out electricity, shut down airports and trains, and unleashed a tsunami that swept boats and houses miles inland. But that is only the beginning.
Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said that the reactor in the Dai-Ichi Power Plant in Fukushima may be starting to melt down. The government ordered residents within 6 miles (10 km) to evacuate immediately.
“If the fuel rods are melting and this continues, a reactor meltdown is possible,” Yuji Kakizaki, an agency spokesman, told Bloomberg [news agency] after cesium—a radioactive material left by atomic fission—was detected around the Dai-Ichi No. 1 reactor.
More than 700 people are reported missing, and an estimated 4,000 are stuck in evacuation centers in Sendai on Honshu Island, 80 miles west of the epicenter. Without food, water, or heat, those at evacuation centers are waiting for helicopter rescue.
Throughout the country, 77,300 people are in 594 evacuation centers in 40 municipalities.
Australian researcher Dr. Qiwen Yao was at work at the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, when the earthquake shook at 2:46 p.m. local time (12:45 a.m. EST). At 203 miles away from the epicenter, Yao lost his electricity and phone connection just minutes after the shake.
“The building started shaking, and it was not easy to find balance because of the earthquake,” Yao recounted in a phone interview on Saturday morning. “Many people came out from the building, and later on we found that laboratory equipments have fallen everywhere.”
There have been at least 154 aftershocks, mainly off the East Coast, at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 12. Dave Applegate, a senior adviser at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said that the aftershocks would continue for “not just days, weeks, but months and potentially years,” Bloomberg reported.
“After the earthquake, aftershocks have been happening every few minutes,” said Yao. “The earth had been shaking until early this morning; the frequency has gradually slowed down since then. It has almost calm down by now, but there is no electricity and it is dark everywhere except a few buildings that have backup power.”
As of 7 p.m. Saturday, 8 people are dead in Tsukuba, 4 are suffering from cardiopulmonary arrest, and 13 are severely injured. Across the city, 26 houses were destroyed, 6 partially wrecked, 1,400 are slightly damaged, and 2,004 are partially under water, according to the government of Tsukuba's website.
Prior to the earthquake, Yao and his colleagues were trained to evacuate to a nearby primary school for temporary refuge. For Yao, the well-built Japanese schools were a sharp contrast to the schools that collapsed instantly when a magnitude 7.9 earthquake hit Sichuan, China, in 2008.
“Yesterday afternoon when I walked past the primary school, it made me think of the earthquake that happened in China," he said. "What happened was that primary school buildings were the first to fall down, and the government buildings did not fall down. But here in Japan, primary schools are made the strongest. … There’s an interesting contrast there.”
At least 87,587 people were killed and 374,177 were injured in the Sichuan earthquake. An estimated 5.36 million buildings collapsed, and more than 21 million buildings were damaged in Sichuan, according to USGS. Many Chinese parents protested for months after finding their children buried under poorly built schools.
Yao, who arrived in Japan for work last September, said he has never seen “anything like this before.” Although in Japan earthquakes normally happen every few weeks, they are generally weak. “This time it is happening more frequently and stronger," he said.
Right after the earthquake took place on Friday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan established an emergency headquarters in response to the disaster.
“The government will make every possible effort to ensure the safety of the public and keep damage to the minimum possible extent,” Kan said in an official statement. “I extend my heartfelt sympathy to those who have suffered.”
After coming back from an inspection of the devastated area around Sendai, Kan said he would mobilize 50,000 Self Defense Force personnel to aid the relief effort.
After waking up to the news on the other side of the globe, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama sent their “deepest condolences” to the Japanese, “particularly those who have lost loved ones in the earthquake and tsunamis.”
“Today’s events remind us of just how fragile life can be," said Obama in a press conference. "Our hearts go out to our friends in Japan and across the region, and we’re going to stand with them as they recover and rebuild from this tragedy."
The U.S. Agency for International Development deployed two Urban Search and Rescue teams on Friday at the request of the Japanese government. The teams consist of 70 cross-trained personnel using sniffer dogs, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.