Forty dead, ten missing, collapsed roofs, floods and fires: these are the very first confirmed consequences of the violent earthquake that struck on Friday off the coast of northeastern Japan. The quake, one of the strongest in history, was followed by a large tsunami. And the toll of death and damage will only rise. 

The Japanese government is doing its best to coordinate relief and rescue operations, "on the assumption that the earthquake did considerable damage," said government spokesman Yukio Edano. On the basis of television images, the death toll looks set to rise in the coming hours.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) measured a magnitude of 8.9 for the earthquake which struck at 2.46 pm local time in Japan. Such a magnitude is rare, and it makes the quake the most powerful to hit Japan in 140 years.  According to USGS records, it is the fifth most powerful earthquake recorded worldwide since 1900. To put the data into perspective, the earthquake in Chile in March 2010 measured 8.8. The deadly earthquake which hit Haiti in January 2010 did not exceed a magnitude 7.3.

In Tokyo, some 380 kilometers from the epicentre, buildings were shaken for at least two minutes. journalist Silvere Boucher-Lambert, who was in the Tokyo subway at the time of the quake, described the scene.

"Hundreds of Japanese people spontaneously aligned themselves against walls and pillars with one hand on the wall,” he said.  "The buildings were evacuated calmly, even cheerfully, nursery staff formed cordons around toddlers wearing self-inflate helmets. Everyone stayed Zen.”

From then on, there were “fairly regular” aftershocks but Boucher-Lambert did not witness “any panic”. The most violent aftershock made buildings in the capital shake again around 3.05 pm. The USGS measured a magnitude of 6.4 for this tremor. Just after 9.00 pm, another tremor, slightly weaker but closer to Tokyo, once again terrified the city’s inhabitants.   

The quake triggered at least six fires, including one in the district of Odaiba, near the capital’s port and another in a refinery town Iichihara in the Tokyo area. Narita airport was closed, as was the express rail from the capital to the north, state media said. The Kyodo news agency said that four million households were without electricity in Tokyo and its surroundings area. The Prime Minister Naoto Kan has assured the public that no radiation leak has been detected in the country’s nuclear plants

A tsunami alert has been issued for much of the Pacific. Japanese television reported that a 4.2-meter high waves swept onto Japan’s Pacific coast. The port city of Sendai, in the northeast Miyagi Prefecture, was the most affected. Television images showed a 10-meter high wave laden with boats and cars hitting the seafront and then flooding onto fields behind, leaving mountains of debris in its wake. The regional airport runway was also reportedly flooded.

A seven-meter tsunami was also reported later a little further south along the coast of the Fukushima prefecture.  Japan had dispatched its naval vessels to the area, the Kyodo news agency reported. In the Iwate Prefecture, vehicles were seen floating in the harbor. The huge car park of the Tokyo Disney Resort (Disneyland) leisure complex in Chiba prefecture, just a few kilometers from the capital, was also under water.

Almost all the coasts of the Pacific are affected by the tsunami alert launched just after the earthquake. Japan, Russia, Indonesia, the Marianas and the Philippines are all at risk, says the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

"A quake of this power has the potential to generate a destructive tsunami that can strike coastlines near the epicenter within minutes and more distant coastlines within hours," said the Center.

Read the original article in French