The images from Japan Friday were as stunning as they were disturbing, reminding us of the frailty of man’s creations and life itself. A wall of water forcefully pushing houses inland. An airport swamped with muddy water. Burning homes surrounded by the deluge.
The 8.9 magnitude earthquake that rocked Japan was the strongest in the country’s history and one of the largest recorded anywhere in the world in the last century. More devastating than the temblor, which was centered off Honshu, the most populous Japanese island, was the tsunami it spawned.
Within hours, northern Japan was inundated. The 23-foot tsunami wave washed over farmland, drove homes — some of them on fire — into the ocean, swept ships out to sea, leaving people on rooftops huddling together in shock.
The Japanese death toll was pegged at nearly 400 Friday afternoon, although that number sadly will rise.
Most worrisome, a backup generator failed at a nuclear power plant northeast of Tokyo. Nearby residents were evacuated, but officials said no radiation had leaked from the facility. Problems were reported at two other nuclear plants as well.
Nearly 4,000 miles away, Hawaii braced for the tsunami, but luckily damage was minimal. Tsunami warnings also were issued for Russia, Indonesia and China, but later cancelled.
The quake brought back memories of the 2004 tremor and tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed more than 200,000 people. Although that quake was slightly stronger — 9.1 magnitude — strict building codes, a better warning system and money made the biggest difference in reducing casualties in Japan.
The Pacific Ocean, known as the Ring of Fire for its collection of earthquake fault lines and volcanoes, is equipped with a system of buoys that monitor numerous water conditions. The system triggered a tsunami alert. No such system exists in the Indian Ocean.
In addition, because of the frequency of earthquakes, Japan has stringent building codes, which the poorer countries around the Indian Ocean do not.
“The friendship and alliance between our two nations is unshakable, and only strengthens our resolve to stand with the people of Japan as they overcome this tragedy,” President Barack Obama said Friday, echoing the sentiments of Americans as they watch this tragedy unfold.