Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Day Japan Stood Still

UPDATED (as of March 12, 2011 7:30 PM, Philippine time) -- Japan, one of the fast-paced countries in the world, with its rapidly growing economy, rapid transport system and rapidly evolving technological society has stood still in the wake of the most powerful earthquake to hit the country in 100 years. The magnitude 8.9 earthquake occurred at 2:46 PM (local time) of March 11, 2011, some 150 kilometers off the coast of Sendai city in Miyagi prefecture. The quake, which damaged homes, buildings, roads, train systems, power plants and power lines was followed soon after by a 23-feet (10-meter) high tsunami which surged inland bringing with it debris of homes, farms and shipping -- some even burning after being washed away by waves of tremendous force.

A tsunami alert has been raised in over 50 countries and territories along the Pacific coast. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has advised the governments of these countries to evacuate their citizens to higher ground in anticipation of huge waves that could cause deaths and damage similar to what happened in Japan. The countries issued with warning include: Japan (including Okinawa and Iwo Jima), Taiwan, The Philippines, Palau, Indonesia (North Sulawesi and Maluku Islands) Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, French Polynesia, Northern Marianas, Russia (Kuril island chain) Canada, The United States (including Midway, Alaska, Hawaii, states in the Pacific coast, and Guam), Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. Hawaii has reportedly been hit by waves as high as 6 feet (2 meters), causing residents to evacuate to higher ground but causing little damage. In other areas, waves were only between 10 to 70 centimeters high -- a relief for residents who were evacuated from coastal areas. The alert has since been lifted in ALL areas as of Saturday, March 12.

Back in Japan, the Japanese government has mobilized its military and emergency response units to conduct search, rescue and retrieval in the northeast of the country and to assess the extent of the damage. The quake, which was felt as far as Beijing, China, has halted Shinkansen bullet train services, closed major airports and seaports, broke major highways, burst major water pipes and fell down power lines. Four of the major nuclear power plants in the northeast have been shut down including Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant where a state of emergency has been declared after its core failed to cool down after shut down. More than 3,000 residents around the power plant are to be evacuated as the government plants to release slightly radioactive superhot gas from the core to relieve pressure. The Japanese financial sector is also largely affected. The Nikkei closed lower a 1.7% with its futures plunging nearly 5%. The value of the yen also went down sharply. Other markets also closed lower in reaction to the quake including Sensex (India) and DAX (Germany) while oil prices dropped.

Hundreds, perhaps even thousands are reported dead of missing. Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) has confirmed approximately 400 dead and another approximately 700 missing in six different prefectures (also reported as over 1100 dead/missing combined). The dead and missing are expected to reach up to 80,000.  World leaders have already expressed their sympathies and condolences to the Japanese. US President Barack Obama called the earthquake "a potential catastrophe" and said his thoughts and prayers are with the Japanese people. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, British Prime Minister David Cameron and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon are among the few who conveyed their sympathies in the aftermath of the quake. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has ordered the Foreign Ministry to begin accepting foreign aid. The US military has already deployed one aircraft carrier to the area to assist the Japanese, with another carrier on the way. Rescue teams from China, Taiwan, United States, Russia, South Korea, Germany and Canada are also ready to go to Japan to assist in relief efforts.

As of 6:30 PM Manila Time, Reuters reports that an explosion has ripped off the roof of one of the unstable reactors at Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Plant. The explosion was followed by smoke which has risen in the atmosphere above the power plant. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has confirmed  that there had been an explosion and radiation leakage at the nuclear power plant.

"We are looking into the cause and the situation and we'll make that public when we have further information," Edano said. "At present, we think 10 km evacuation is appropriate," he added.

The blast occured as the operator of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (Tepco) desperately tried to cool down temperatures at the reactor, which heated up in the aftermath of the quake despite being shut off raising fears of a meltdown. Earlier, Tepco has reported that they are planning to release tiny amounts of radioactive steam to relieve pressure in the reactor. It now looks as though this plan has also failed to work.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has advised Filipinos living near the nuclear power plant to evacuate to safer ground as soon as possible.

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