TOKYO » Japan’s most punishing earthquake on record and the devastating tsunami it triggered plunged the heart of the densely populated island nation into an apocalyptic scene of blazing buildings, cratered highways, floating rubble and frenzied efforts to avert radiation leaks at damaged nuclear power plants.
The death toll was expected to exceed 1,000 after disaster response teams reach the hardest-hit areas and assess casualties, the National Police Agency and Defense Ministry reported today.
The force of the 8.9-magnitude quake, which seismologists said released 1,000 times the energy of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, broke the foundations under homes and buildings and opened up chasms in fields and pavement, swallowing cars and shearing off sidewalks and driveways.
More than 100 aftershocks have jolted the island nation since yesterday’s temblor, including at least a dozen of magnitude 6 or more, said Dave Applegate, a senior adviser at the U.S. Geological Survey.
Japan’s huge earthquake brought supermodern Tokyo to a standstill as it paralyzed trains that normally run like clockwork, crippled mobile phones, stranded hordes of commuters and trapped scores of people in elevators.
"This is the kind of earthquake that hits once every 100 years," said restaurant worker Akira Tanaka, 54.
He gave up waiting for trains to resume and decided to set off on foot for his home 12 miles north of the capital. "I’ve been walking an hour and 10 minutes, still have about three hours to go," he said.
In Sendai, the biggest city in the area of the quake’s epicenter, work crews had labored through the night to dig out trucks and cars that had fallen into chasms that opened in roads and highways.
"The tsunami was unbelievably fast. Smaller cars were being swept around me, and all I could do was sit in my truck," said truck driver Koichi Takairin, 34, who was pinned in his 4-ton vehicle but later escaped to a community center.
His rig ruined, he joined the steady flow of mud-spattered survivors who walked along the road away from the sea and back into the city. Smoke from at least one large fire could be seen in the distance.
"More than 90 percent of the houses in three coastal communities have been washed away by tsunami," a municipal official in the town of Futaba told the Kyodo news agency.
He said that from his vantage point on the fourth floor of the town hall, "I see no houses standing."
The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.