The huge tidal surges traveled up to several miles inland, destroying homes, offices, warehouses and other structures in the Sendai region of Japan’s main island of Honshu.
The death told is feared to exceed 10,000 as the tsunamis struck with little warning. Many living along the coast didn’t have adequate time to evacuate, or were unable to.
The Japan Meteorological Agency initially reported the magnitude of the quake at 8.9, but that reading was updated to 9.0 over the weekend. That makes it the most powerful on record to hit the quake-prone country.
The quake was centered 15 miles beneath the Pacific about 80 miles east of the coastal city of Sendai, which was nearly obliterated by the powerful waves.
The strong shaking caused damage over a wide area, including in metropolitan Tokyo 230 miles away. But the majority of the destruction and fatalities were attributed to the resulting tsunamis.
Strong aftershocks in the days and hours following the initial jolt hampered relief efforts, since the strongest of those quakes prompted additional tsunami warnings across the catastrophe zone.
A subsequent nuclear disaster unfolded in the wake of the initial quake and tsunamis. The cooling systems at three nuclear power plants were disabled as the quake knocked out parts of the country’s power grid and the tsunamis swamped the backup diesel generators at the plants.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano warned on Sunday that a hydrogen explosion could occur at Unit 3 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, where the reactor was feared to be melting down. That would follow an explosion on Saturday in another unit at the same power plant, taking down the walls around Unit 1.
A large exclusion zone was established around the Fukushima Dai-ichi facility. Iodine tablets were being distributed to residents in danger of radiation exposure in an effort to limit potential health hazards.
The tsunamis eventually traveled across the entire width of the North Pacific, but inflicted comparatively minor damage when they reached, Hawaii, Guam and the coast of North America.