News / Asia

Quake is Japan's Worst Natural Disaster in Nearly 100 Years

Fishing boats are swept by a tsunami in Oarai City in Ibaragi Prefecture, northeastern Japan March 11, 2011.
Fishing boats are swept by a tsunami in Oarai City in Ibaragi Prefecture, northeastern Japan March 11, 2011.

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Victor BeattieSteve Herman

Japanese geologists have long forecasted a huge earthquake in Japan, and the country has been preparing for the "big one" for decades.

But the 8.9 magnitude quake that struck Friday off the coast of Honshu was far bigger than anticipated.

VOA's Bureau Chief in Seoul, Steve Herman, lived and reported for years from Japan.  He told VOA's Victor Beattie that Friday's quake is the worst natural disaster to hit Japan in nearly 100 years.

"It's almost unbelievable to see what has been happening to Japan's northern pacific coast today. It is the worst disaster Japan has faced since World War II. What has happened is that the big quake that Japan has been bracing for many, many decades has hit. Not only was it a huge quake in shallow waters, but it also generated a tsunami. And these waves that have hit so far have been as high as 10 meters. And what this has done, the waves have gone into the coast in cities such as Sendai and they have carried back out to sea buildings, cars, trucks, homes and other structures. There is certain to be a fairly significant death toll. We're also going to be talking about damage to facilities in the billions of dollars."

Listen to the full interview

From your years living in Japan, your experience reporting on events, natural disasters in Japan, weren't the Japanese fairly confident they could withstand a major quake?

"This is literally almost off the scale in terms of how the Japanese measure the intensity of shaking in local areas. And, of course, Japan has the most stringent building standards in the world for quake mitigation. It has also spent billions of dollars over many decades building coastal defenses against tsunamis. And what we have seen in some areas is that those defenses have been overwhelmed."

What do you anticipate to be the social, economic and, even, political costs of this massive natural disaster?

"Japan really has not faced anything like this in modern times. The Japanese economy has not been in good shape. This is going to be a very big blow to any industry that relies on production. Of course, the construction industry will boom. Obviously, there's going to be a massive rebuilding effort. Right now, it's way too premature to think about that. The focus in the next days and weeks is going to be on search and rescue. From the size of the destruction from both the quake and the tsunami, there are obviously going to be thousands of people trapped and missing and the military in Japan is already getting into the act: aircraft are flying north to survey damage, ships are leaving from the naval port, heading north. Hundreds - if not thousands - of members of the police force and the self-defense forces are being dispatched. And at this point, we still don't know how bad it is because there are still forecasts for additional tsunamis to hit and we expect there will be more devastating aftershocks."

Steve Herman is tweeting on the Japan Earthquake at @W7VOA


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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