The earthquake, which has been ranked among the five most powerful tremors in the world since 1900, also caused tsunami waves measuring about 133 feet in height to sweep the Sendai region. The tsunami affected areas which were as far as six miles inland. The quake also triggered the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant causing panic and making the evacuation of thousands necessary. The magnitude of the disaster can be gauged by the words of Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who said "In the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan."
The 9 Mw earthquake that struck Japan in March 2011 lasted about six minutes. The epicenter of the quake was at a distance of about eighty-one miles from the city of Sendai on Honshu Island and approximately 232 miles from Tokyo, the capital city. A number of foreshocks preceded the main quake. Two major foreshocks affected the region on March 9, 2011. Seismologists have recorded over nine hundred aftershocks in the region, each measuring 4.5 Mw or more. It is anticipated that the aftershocks will continue to shake the region for a few years. The Japan Meteorological Agency owned Earthquake Early Warning sent out warning signals about a minute before the shocks were felt in Tokyo. This is believed to have prevented damages in many places.
The tsunami triggered of by the earthquake that struck Japan swept homes, vehicles, and boats off Japan's eastern coast on the same day. The tsunami also hit Hawaii and was felt along the Pacific, though to a lesser extent than Japan. Tsunami warnings were sounded across South and North America, Canada and Alaska. The worst hit, perhaps, was the city of Miyako in the Iwate prefecture. Waves measuring about 128 feet slammed the coast and swept off all that came its way. The city of Sendai was severely affected with the tsunami flooding the airport, sweeping cars and homesteads on its course. Kuji and neighboring areas were completely devastated. Other Japanese cities destroyed by the Tsunami include Kamaishi, Otsuchi, Soma, Miyako, Yamada Namie, Minamisoma, Shichigahama, Onagawa, Higashimatsushima, Ishinomaki, Natori, and Kesennuma.
The earthquake sparked off major fires in many parts of Japan. While many houses and farms in and around Sendai broke into flames and then were inundated by the incoming tsunami. Much damage was caused by the fire that erupted in the city of Ichihara at the Cosmo oil refinery. Firefighters were unable to combat the 100 foot high flames. In the city of Miyagi fire broke out in the turbine building of a power plant but was soon put out.
The earthquake, of an unprecedented magnitude, triggered a series of nuclear accidents in Japan. A total of eleven nuclear reactors including those at Fukushima I and II, Onagawa Nuclear Plant and at Tokai Nuclear Station were shut down following the tremors. The tsunami waves breached the seawalls at Fukushima I and II and flooded the diesel powered generators that were meant to cool the plant after it shutdown. The malfunctioning led to a number of explosions at Fukushima I and led to radioactive leakage. High alert was sounded in the adjoining areas and over 200,000 people were evacuated. The Fukushima I meltdowns put the region in a state of emergency. Radiation inside the plant was 1,000 times the normal levels and the radiation outside shot up to about eight times the safety levels. With the meltdown of six reactors in all, Fukushima II also went into an emergency. At about the same time the Onagawa Nuclear Plant reported a spill of radioactive water following loss of the power for over an hour. The Tokai Nuclear Plant also partially lost its cooling system. In many cities of Japan radioactive water and food has been found as late as August causing much concern.
As a result of the earthquake, the tsunami and the ensuing crisis, over 15,830 people have lost their lives, 5,950 have been injured, and over 3,640 people have gone missing. These causalities as reported by the National Police Agency are spread across eighteen of the country's forty-seven prefectures. Among those reported dead are nineteen foreign nationals. Most of the causalities were sustained due to drowning.
The catastrophe threw up a number of allied issues. With lack of infrastructure to conduct the funerals of the thousands who died in the calamity, mass graves were dug and the dead buried without rituals. The international NGO, Save the Children, reports that about 100,000 children in Japan have lost their homes with many separated from their families and others orphaned.
By May 2011, the Government of Japan estimated damages of US $309 billion resulting from the earthquake and tsunami, making it the costliest earthquake in the history of the world. The damages amounting to 25 trillion yen are likely to adversely affect the country's gross domestic product (GDP) for the year 2011-2012. Japan's 530 trillion yen economy is likely to take a dip by 2.75 trillion yen. This is an estimate of the loss of produce and disruptions to the supply chain in the affected areas. According to some reports, the GDP is likely to contract by over 12% this year but economists believe that the rebuilding efforts are likely to push up the GDP and the economy is likely to recover.
The earthquake and tsunami affected areas of Japan are on their way to recovery. While about 65,000 people are still in temporary houses the rest have returned to their homes as of early December 2011. Current reports confirm that the radiation levels that had escalated as a result of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant have now been restored to normal limits. The evacuation area is still not deemed safe, though. The Government of Japan maintains that the economy of the country, thrown off track by the earthquake and subsequent Thai floods, is well on its way to recovery.