Japan awakens to fears of climbing death toll

A woman carrying a child on her back walks over tsunami-drifted debris and mud in Rikuzentakada, Iwate, Japan, March 12, 2011.
AP Photo/Kyodo News

Updated at 7:12 p.m. ET

(CBS/AP) Dawn brought Japan the first full day after the largest earthquake in the area's recorded history triggered fierce tsunamis and widespread destruction Friday that has left hundreds -- and perhaps more than 1,000 -- dead.

Hundreds of bodies have been found in the northeastern coastal city of Sendai, the closest major city to the quake's center. But search and rescue efforts were still in their infancy and Kyodo news reported Friday that the death toll may exceed 1,000. Hundreds if not thousands were missing and injured.

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CBS News' Lucy Croft reports from Tokyo that Japanese television began the day showing scenes of utter tragedy: houses with their roofs ripped off, at least two villages destroyed, a forest thrown like a pile of chopsticks onto a bunch of houses.

Aerial scenes of the town of Ofunato showed homes and warehouses in ruins. Sludge and high water spread over acres of land, with people seeking refuge on roofs of partially submerged buildings. At one school, a large white "SOS" had been spelled out in English.

Residents look over destroyed buildings partly submerged in water from a tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi, Japan, March 12, 2011.
AP Photo/Kyodo News

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said an initial assessment found "enormous damage," adding that the Defense Ministry was sending troops to the hardest-hit region.

Making contact with people close to the epicenter is very difficult, Croft reports. Picking up the phone and actually talking to someone there is nearly impossible. Landlines are almost non-existent. There's no mass transit operating now so getting there is even more difficult.

The United States was moving naval ships from several locations in the pacific to assist in rescue efforts, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which would serve as a base of operations. Other countries were making similar offers of help.

The massive quake shook dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile stretch of coast, including Tokyo, hundreds of miles from the epicenter. A large section of Kesennuma, a town of 70,000 people in Miyagi, burned furiously into the night with no apparent hope of being extinguished, public broadcaster NHK said.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered that about 3,000 residents living within 10 kilometers of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear station must evacuate. Nuclear officials said radiation levels inside the plant have surged to 1,000 times their normal levels after the cooling system failed.

Engineers are trying to fix the cooling system of one of the plant's reactors, which was damaged by the earthquake. Engineers have already released slightly radioactive vapor to relieve pressure but said that the vapor would not harm humans or the environment. The continued loss of electricity has delayed the planned release of vapor from inside the reactor to ease pressure. Pressure inside one of the reactors had risen to 1.5 times the level considered normal.

The Defense Ministry said it had sent dozens of troops trained to deal with chemical disasters to the plant in case of a radiation leak.

The tsunami roared over embankments, washing anything in its path inland before reversing directions and carrying the cars, homes and other debris out to sea. Flames shot from some of the homes, probably because of burst gas pipes.

Waves of muddy waters flowed over farmland near Sendai, carrying buildings, some of them ablaze. Drivers attempted to flee. Sendai airport was inundated with thick, muddy debris that included cars, trucks, buses and even light planes.

The highways to the worst-hit coastal areas were severely damaged and communications, including telephone lines, were snapped. Train services in northeastern Japan and in Tokyo, which normally serve 10 million people a day, were also suspended, leaving untold numbers stranded in stations or roaming the streets. Tokyo's Narita airport was closed indefinitely.

In one town alone on the northeastern coast, Minami-soma, some 1,800 houses were destroyed or badly ravaged, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman said.

A large fire erupted at the Cosmo oil refinery in the city of Ichihara and burned out of control with 100-foot flames whipping into the sky.

"Our initial assessment indicates that there has already been enormous damage," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. "We will make maximum relief effort based on that assessment."

Assessing the full economic impact was impossible in the hours after the magnitude-8.9 quake. But traffic clogged streets, trains stopped, flights were grounded and phone service was disrupted or cut off.

Part of houses swallowed by tsunami burn in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture March 11, 2011.
AP Photo/Kyodo News

James Shuck, an insurance industry analyst for the investment bank Jefferies, estimates the insurance industry's losses in Japan at $10 billion. That would make it the costliest Japanese earthquake for insurers ever. By comparison, the 1994 quake in Northridge, California, cost insurers about $15 billion.

Air traffic was disrupted. Seven United flights and two Continental flights from the United States to Tokyo's Narita International Airport were diverted overnight, mostly to other airports in Asia. Delta canceled 29 flights into and out of Tokyo.

Japanese automakers halted production at assembly plants in areas hit by the earthquake. One Honda worker died after being crushed by a collapsing wall. Thirty more were injured when walls and parts of a ceiling crumbled at a Honda Motor Co. research facility in northeastern Tochigi prefecture.

Toyota Motor Corp., the world's biggest automaker, shut down two assembly plants. There were no immediate reports of injuries among Honda workers, a spokeswoman said. Parts makers were also shut down.

Still, the damage to Japan's economy, the world's third-largest, wasn't nearly as severe as it might have been. The devastated northeastern coastal region is far less developed than the Tokyo metro area.

"Something similar hitting Tokyo Bay would have been unimaginable," said Michael Smitka, an economist who specializes in Japan at Washington and Lee University.

In Washington Friday, President Obama received an Oval Office briefing on the quake and tsunami from senior government officials including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, the White House said in a press release.

"I am heartbroken by this tragedy," Mr. Obama said at a press conference Friday afternoon. Calling the quake "a potentially catastrophic disaster," Mr. Obama said that America would provide Japan with assistance while working to ensure the safety of American citizens in the country.

A spokesman for the prime minister thanked the U.S. for its offers of military and logistical support, though it was unclear Friday exactly how the assistance would take shape. U.S. navy ships in the Pacific were moving toward Japan and aid flights were being scheduled to the U.S.'s Yokota Air Force Base, west of Tokyo.

Photos on Yokota's web page showed a number of commercial airliners that had landed there after being diverted from Narita.

An American man working at one of the nuclear plants near the coast when the quake hit said the whole building shook and debris fell from the ceiling. Danny Eudy, 52, a technician employed by Pasedena, Texas-based Atlantic Plant Maintenance, and his colleagues escaped the building just as the tsunami hit, his wife told The Associated Press.

"He walked through so much glass that his feet were cut. It slowed him down," said Pineville, Louisiana, resident Janie Eudy, who spoke to her husband by phone after the quake.

The group watched homes and vehicles be carried away in the wave and found their hotel mostly swept away when they finally reached it.

Also in Miyagi prefecture, a fire broke out in a turbine building of a nuclear power plant, but it was later extinguished, said Tohoku Electric Power Co.

Hiroshi Sato, a disaster management official in northern Iwate prefecture, said officials were having trouble getting an overall picture of the destruction.

"We don't even know the extent of damage. Roads were badly damaged and cut off as tsunami washed away debris, cars and many other things," he said.

The magnitude-8.9 offshore quake triggered a 23-foot tsunami and was followed for hours by more than 80 aftershocks.

Scientists said the quake ranked as the fifth-largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month.

The quake was the strongest ever recorded in the highly seismically active archipelago, Japan's meteorological agency said. The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in Tokyo and its vicinity, which killed more than 140,000 people, registered 8.3.

The most serious earthquake of the past several decades struck near Kobe in January 1995, killing more than 6,000 people and measured a 7.2.

Japan has strict urban building codes requiring buildings to withstand even the most massive quakes and has prepared extensively for major earthquakes like Friday's. But the toll of any quake -- in damage and in lives -- is unpredictable, depending on timing, location and the presence of older buildings that don't meet modern earthquake standards, among other factors.

"The energy radiated by this quake is nearly equal to one month's worth of energy consumption" in the United States, U.S. Geological Survey Scientist Brian Atwater told The Associated Press.

David Applegate, a senior science adviser for earthquake and geologic hazards for the U.S. Geological Survey, said the quake ruptured a patch of the earth's crust 150 miles long and 50 miles across.