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Japan Slammed by 8.9 Magnitude Quake; Pacific Coast Residents Await Tsunami Waves

Aired March 11, 2011 - 05:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: A massive and historic earthquake hits Japan, and it is creating devastation across the country this morning.

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, the pictures are just astounding. A massive wall of water pushing aside everything in its path -- farmland flooded for miles, dragging along homes, cars, boats. These are some of the most stunning pictures as you see that wall of water just washing over farmland far inland from the coast of Japan.

And good morning. This is special coverage this morning of AMERICAN MORNING on this Friday, March 11th. It's 5:00 a.m. here on the East Coast, 7:00 p.m. in Tokyo. And we're following breaking news in Japan after an 8.9 magnitude quake hits and triggers a massive 13- foot tsunami.

HOLMES: Yes. And the rescue operation is under way right now. But also happening right now, a lot of warnings are in place, tsunami warnings for at least 20 countries -- and Hawaii and the West Coast of the U.S. under warnings as well.

But let me tell you about this quake -- a devastating one, one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded. It was an 8.9 magnitude quake. It hit of the coast of Japan overnight.

There have been several powerful aftershocks being felt, up to 7.0 in magnitude. The quake was centered 300 miles from Tokyo, but it was felt in Tokyo. Buildings swayed.

Take a look at these pictures, our bureau there in Tokyo as well. Some of our co-workers being thrown around at times as well. But this is just one of the views inside, one of the places here.

People, of course, poured out onto the streets afterwards. They say it's a city in chaos right now.

The danger we have now, the concern, a tsunami. It did trigger a tsunami, massive waves, some as high as 30 feet, starting to come ashore in places. And this wall of water is starting to bring with it -- it's washing away cars, boats, buildings. It looks like lava almost making its way through.

Here's the most stunning picture. Waves of mud and debris can be seen, like I said, like lava flowing through some farmland. Some of these pictures -- it's just hard to imagine what we're seeing, but this is actually happening. We'll have more and more pictures as they continue to come in to us throughout the morning.

There are at least eight deaths reported, but we're certainly expecting that number to go up. Tsunami warnings like I said across the Pacific Rim, Hawaii, Alaska, West Coast of the U.S. and Canada under those warnings.

CHETRY: Matt Alt is an American writer and translator. He's living in Tokyo, and he was home when the quake hit. Let's listen to his account of what it was like to be there when this struck.


MATT ALT, EARTHQUAKE WITNESS (via telephone): It was absolutely unlike anything I've experienced before. I've been living here for eight years now, and this was quite simply the biggest, longest-lasting earthquake I've ever experienced here.

There are earthquakes from time to time, but we have never, ever felt anything on the magnitude, the literal magnitude of what we experienced today.

It was a beautiful spring day. It was sunny outside. I just came home from an errand to the grocery store, and all of a sudden, bam, it just hit. And you could tell it was different instantly from other tremors that we've had before. I mean, it picked just up intensity. It ramped up. It's gentle shaking, and things started falling off shelves. Things started falling off of our desks.

And you could hear this strange eerie creaking sound of all the buildings all around us as they were kind of shaken by the tremor of the ground. And it was something I -- you know, I hope I never have to hear again.

The ground was rolling for an extended period of time. I wasn't exactly sure what to do or where to go. I'd never been prepared for something like this. My wife and I went stood outside and held onto the outside of our house.

You couldn't even stand up. I mean, literally, at the peak of these waves that were washing over the ground, you literally couldn't stay on your feet. You had to crouch into a ball or put your back against something so you didn't fall. And that's exactly what we did for the length of the duration, which I would say was about probably a minute to two minutes. It felt like a lot longer than that, let me tell you.


CHETRY: All right. Well, this is the fifth largest earthquake since 1900. And we have a list of some others. In 1960 in Chile, a magnitude 9.5 hit. That was back in May of 1960.

HOLMES: And you see the rest we have here. Number two, Prince William Sound, it's in Alaska, a 9.2 there. Sumatra, the third largest, 9.1. And you see it go from a 9.0, and then an 8.9 is what we're dealing with with this one.

This is, again, folks, a historic earthquake we are just experiencing and seeing right now. And again, the danger is not going to go away because these waves travel now. This tsunami, these waves are on their way literally right now. So, we are talking about in the next few hours, some places will literally be under the gun and could be seeing these waves and experience in this tsunami.

CHETRY: So, it's amazing to see that number three was the one that caused all the destruction in Banda Aceh in Sumatra, and that is stronger than that. So, it is pretty remarkable.

Tsunami warnings issued for the entire West Coast as we've said.

John Rundle is a seismologist. He's also a professor at U.C.- Davis in California, and he is a founder of the earthquake research group He joins us now from Santa Fe.

Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

First, though, if you could just offer some perspective -- as you're seeing the pictures and learning about the power of this quake, what are your first thoughts?

JOHN RUNDLE, SEISMOLOGIST, UC DAVIS: Well, the only thing you can really compare it to is the Sumatra earthquake. You had that up there a minute ago. It's constructive to take some lessons from that. There was a tsunami similar to this one. In addition to that, about three months after the Sumatra earthquake, there was another earthquake magnitude, I believe, around 8.4 that occurred.

So, you know, these things don't happen in isolation. In Japan in 1836, there was a famous sequence of two earthquakes larger than magnitude 8.0, the Ansei I and II earthquakes, which were separated by 36 hours.

Earthquakes are clustered in space and time. So, unfortunately for Japan, it's likely there will be major aftershocks. There have already been some, but even some as large as 8.0. And those could also cause damage and destruction and tsunamis.

In addition, there was an earthquake not recorded by any instrument, but we know that it existed, happened between 1699 and 1700 A.D. We think it was a January 26th date actually, at about 9:30 in the evening. There was a magnitude 9.0 earthquake that occurred off the coast of Oregon and Washington and caused a tsunami not only there -- we see the evidence of the drowned forest. But also, it was recorded in Japan about four hours later.

At that time in Japan, it was called the Orphan Tsunami because they didn't know where it came from. But we now know that it was actually that earthquake in Oregon and Washington. It was about three or four feet -- the tsunami was about three or four feet high in Japan.

So, what we have here today is the reverse situation. The earthquake is in Japan, about magnitude 8.9, and we can expect the tsunami to hit California and the West Coast possibly, you know, with waves of three to four feet high.

So, you know, it's a scary thing. It's hard to look at these images which are ones we've never seen before, anything like this really in real time. I mean, it's just amazing images. It's hard to believe that there are, you know, thousands of people killed in this thing.

I mean, it's just -- it's just scary. I mean, it's just -- the power of one of these things. It's like 300 -- equivalent of 300 megaton nuclear explosion basically. I mean, these things are just incredibly destructive.

HOLMES: And, Mr. Rundle, question here. T.J. Holmes here, CNN in New York. You mentioned the West Coast of California, and for our American viewers and certainly will have concerns -- we see these every once in a while, these tsunami warnings -- but can you give us more perspective of what they can possibly expect there?

Because this is some scary stuff to see these kinds of pictures coming in in Japan. I know this is certainly a ways away, and you talked about three to four foot high waves. But can you give us an idea what kind of impact the West Coast of the U.S., and maybe even Hawaii, could be looking at?

RUNDLE: Sure. Hello?


CHETRY: Go ahead.

HOLMES: Yes, go ahead, Mr. Rundle.

RUNDLE: OK. Sorry.

Yes. So, what one could expect is that the water level would rise about three to four feet and it would stay at about that level for maybe 15 minutes -- 10 to 15 minutes, you know, and then recede over another 10 or 15 minutes and then come back and recede. And cycles of -- probably three or four cycles like that.

So, if you happen to live near the ocean, near the shore, and near the coast, and you live, you know, basically at sea level -- I mean, this could -- you could expect this to have a major impact on your home and even cause damage and death. So, you know, you need to consider that and the thought of possibly evacuating from -- to avoid that.

CHETRY: We're going to keep you around, John Rundle, seismologist and expert in all of this, to help put in perspective what we're seeing this morning. Thanks so much for talking to us.


CHETRY: All right. Now, we want to go to Kyung Lah. She was in Tokyo when the quake struck. She joins us on the phone now.

What is the situation like there, Kyung?

KYUNG LAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, what Tokyo is going through right now, Kiran, is now several hours after the first quake struck is -- there's a big problem at least within the city of Tokyo with infrastructure. The train lines are down. Highways are cut off. And so, it's extremely difficult to travel around this city.

The problem is Tokyo has 13 million people in it -- a lot of people, like New York City, have to commute outside of the immediate city center. And so, what we have here are a lot of people just walking it out on foot. They have to go to the daycare centers to pick up their kids and then try to figure out how to head home.

So, what we have as far as a crisis within the city of Tokyo is an infrastructure problem.

North of us, you're seeing those devastating pictures. That is a different sort of disaster. That is now a search and rescue operation.

Night has fallen here. It is extremely difficult. It's cold.

They've got to pluck the people off of the buildings. They've got to try to assess the damage and realize that this is still an ongoing disaster. It sort of ceased a little bit in the last hour or so, but we're still feeling aftershocks here in Tokyo.

So, what you have to also do is try to keep the people of Japan calm. I heard the prime minister come on the television and say, everyone remain calm. What they do not want is a second disaster on top of that, and that being a disaster of crisis -- of panic. So, those are the big challenges right now, now that we're talking several hours after this quake.

HOLMES: OK. We're on the line now with our Kyung Lah, who was in Tokyo for us when this earthquake took place. It was felt there some 230 miles away and offshore.

Kyung Lah, another question to you here. You talked about, of course, the shaking and the difficulty in the city of Tokyo with 13 million people. But you talked about the other disaster just to the north with that wave of water we are starting to see.

Just how populated is that area where the wave of water is now rushing through, that tsunami is coming through? How populated of an area are we talking about?

LAH: It's spread out. But that region has 1 million people in it. It's a community that is known for -- as a fishing community, but there are a lot of people who are there. So, this is a populated place. This is a country also that, along the coastline, you don't have those big wide open beaches that you think of in other parts of Asia. The coastline here does tend to have concrete walls, and there are also gates that shut down.

So, the tsunami probably could have been far worse were this country not as prepared. But as far as the immediate impact on that city up there, there are 1 million people up there. We're hearing a wide variety of numbers being reported by the local authorities. So, at this point, we have not been able to confirm exactly how many missing, how many dead.

Another problem is trying to reach anyone. Virtually all the mobile lines are down. As far as, I should say, they're jammed. Everyone is trying to use their mobile phone, their cell phone. The land lines are extraordinarily difficult to get through.

Here in the bureau, we have a number of land lines out. But this is one of the only ones that's working.

So, it is a struggle trying to reach those people, trying to get in touch with those people. And a lot of those people up north have relatives down here in Tokyo, and you can see that that's a bit of the panic, that you can't reach your loved ones and you just don't know what's happening up there.

CHETRY: So, you're really illustrating how there are sort of two crises. I mean, the situation in Tokyo, as you said, where the earthquake hit -- and we're looking at a refinery on fire as well, these are just extraordinary pictures -- and then further north in those farmlands, the flooding because of the tsunami.

How equipped are they in Japan to deal with what you have described, with this rescue operation that's under way? And are there calls for international help at this point?

LAH: There have been calls for international help. We know that the Red Cross on both the domestic Red Cross and the International Red Cross are already on their way up.

The U.S. military has been informed. At this point, not quite clear on what the U.S. military aid involvement is going to be. There has been a wide net reached out.

There is an extensive system in place here to react to any sort of crisis. So, those systems are already in place. This is a country where earthquakes are the norm. You think about how many earthquakes there are in California.

I've lived in California, and I've lived here. And I can tell you, there are 10 times the number of earthquakes that you feel here in Japan than you do in California.

So, people here are used to earthquakes. But they're not used to this size of earthquake.

I was in Tokyo station, one of the busiest train stations in Japan, when this earthquake struck, that very first one. I can tell you the shaking went on for several minutes. Signs were shaking back and forth. The lights were flickering.

People were looking very alarmed and panicked, which is very unusual in Japan because of the regularity of earthquakes here. That's what really elevates this to a different sort of crisis. And we're miles, hundreds of miles away from the epicenter. So, you can imagine what that must have felt like in that small -- in that town where the tsunami is striking, the amount of panic and crisis they must feel at this moment.

HOLMES: All right. Our Kyung Lah for us in Tokyo, we will continue to check in with you. We appreciate you this morning.

But, again, our Kyung Lah kind of illustrating the scope of this disaster -- a disaster that's really unfolding on two different fronts. You have the initial earthquake, an 8.9 magnitude quake that rocks Japan, of course, just off to some 230 miles away from Tokyo. She said she felt the shaking in Tokyo for several minutes there.

But then you have this wall of water -- this tsunami that literally is sweeping everything in its path in parts of the country, a disaster now unfolding on several fronts.

Christine Romans, we're going to go ahead and bring you in here because this will have an impact on other things. Yes, the human toll we certainly need to be focused on. And we are doing that first and foremost. But this will have an impact as well as people keep an eye on what it's going to do to markets right now.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's more than the markets. It's the economic destruction within the country of Japan. This is a massive industrialized economy, $5.5 trillion economy.

It's still unfolding here. You have the refinery on fire -- the Cosmo refinery on fire there. You have refineries, oil refineries throughout the country stopping processing of gasoline right now because they are so concerned about their infrastructure. You have four nuclear power plants that have shut down. No reports of leaks, but four nuclear power plants shut down.

And the Bank of Japan issuing a statement saying it will do whatever is necessary to keep the economy going, to keep the markets and the economy liquid in Japan because --

CHETRY: It's a huge challenge right now, as Kyung was saying. I mean, there is no land lines.

ROMANS: That's right.

CHETRY: The mobile phones are jammed. Power is out in many places. So, it's amazing that they're trying to issue that so quickly.

ROMANS: They are. And as she said -- as she said, disaster response. This is a big modern, industrialized economy. So, they are responding quite quickly to this.

But this is all still unfolding. The economic impact and the human impact are all tied together. We still don't know what buildings may be in jeopardy. We still don't know where other fires starting -- fires are starting all the time here right now, and they're still burning, and they're still trying to get control of all of that.

The Nikkei, which is the Japanese stock market, fell pretty -- you know, you could really see it starting to fall right when the quake happened, and then it closed at 3:00 p.m. Japan Time. So, now, we're watching -- I'm watching something called Nikkei futures, which is the futures market for the Japanese stock market, still continuing to fall.

And world markets had already been down but are still declining again. And I'm going to tell you why. There's a lot of things going on in the word, as you know, but a natural disaster is something that creates an awful lot of uncertainty. There's no question the reinsurance companies and the insurance companies will have billions and billions and billions of dollars in claims as they try to figure out what's going on here.

But, clearly, a big economy with a lot of infrastructure, a lot of people, and we're still finding out exactly what the fallout will be. We'll be closely watching to see what this means for other markets in the neighborhood and for Japan as well.

HOLMES: Christine, thank you. We're long away from figuring out what this fallout will be.

ROMANS: That's right.

HOLMES: We are just getting started on this disaster, frankly, folks.

CHETRY: And Hawaii has ordered evacuations in its coastal areas because of the threat of a tidal wave set off by this Japan earthquake. They also extended the tsunami warning to the whole of the Pacific Basin, except for mainland United States and Canada. But again, they want to evacuate people, especially from these low-lying areas. Hawaii, one of the areas that is being asked to get people out of their coastal communities.

Let's go to Carter Evans right now. He's with the CNN family, and he is in Hawaii right now where he was vacationing and found himself thrust into this enormous news story this morning.

Carter, what are you hearing?

CARTER EVANS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, we just heard the civil defense sirens, Kiran. And I've heard him a couple of times tonight. Basically, what that is is that's a warning to head to higher ground.

I'm at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center on Ewa Beach, Hawaii. This in Oahu, the main island in Hawaii. We, in fact, are in a low- lying area ourselves right now. We're going to have to move.

If there is anything good about a tsunami, it's that we have a good lead time on it. We know that it's coming. We know when it's coming.

Here's the question. We don't know how big it's going to be. How do they judge how big it's going to be? Well, they've got a series of buoys that are all throughout the Pacific Ocean, and they measure wave heights and wave speeds.

And, right now, some of these buoys in the middle of the ocean are measuring waves at about three feet high. Now, that may not sound very big, and it really isn't very big. And, in fact, a tsunami is really a nonevent when you're out at sea. If you're in a boat, it goes right under you, and you never even know it.

It's when it comes ashore it becomes a problem. And that's the question. How big are these waves going to be when they get to the Hawaiian Islands. Right now, it could be three, possibly six feet high.

You know, the last time we had a tsunami warning out here in the Hawaiian Islands was last year about this time. I think it was in February. By the time the tsunami got here, it was only a couple of inches.

This time, though, I've got to tell you -- and I was here last year when the warning occurred. This time, it feels different. I was in Waikiki when the first tsunami warning came out. People are quite concerned there. They're beginning to evacuate.

One of the problems, though, a lot of people in Waikiki, they're tourists. They hear these sirens, and they don't know necessarily what they mean. They're getting their information from the hotels.

And what they're doing is they're putting these evacuation plans in place right now, telling people in hotels to go up to the sixth floor or above. That's where you're going to need to be. Or if you cannot get to higher ground in a building, you need to drive inland at least a half mile. That's what I was seeing.

When I was coming out here Ewa Beach tonight, I saw a steady stream of cars heading inland, heading up, getting some elevation. Also, a steady stream of cars at gas stations. People want to fill up. They want to be prepared.

Remember, we're out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean here. If you can't dock ships to get the gasoline ashore, there is going to be no gasoline if the tsunami really does harm the shoreline here. So, this is a big concern. People want to stock up and be prepared.

HOLMES: Carter, one more thing here quickly. You talk about you all are going to have to evacuate the area where you are. Do you have a sense or do authorities have a sense of just how many people will need to be evacuated from those low-lying zones to get out of the way of the waves?

EVANS: You know, it's a question, and it's not really clear how many people are going to be in harm's way right now. A lot depends on the size of the tsunami when it comes to shore.

I can tell you the population of Hawaii is more than 1 million people. A lot of people live along the coast. A lot of people do live on the ridges.

My family, for instance, lives up on the ridges. So we're safe. I got to tell you, my hill tonight is very, very crowded. People headed up there tonight.

CHETRY: All right. Well, as you said, if there's any bit of good news, it's the lead time they are able to get those warnings out and get people out. Hopefully, everything will go smoothly.

Carter Evans for us in Hawaii -- we'll check in with you again. Thanks so much.

HOLMES: Let's turn to our Rob Marciano, helping us with coverage this morning as well. Excuse me, we're going to check in with Rob in a moment. I need to turn to our Barbara Starr, Pentagon correspondent. She's standing by for us as well.

Barbara, good morning. How is the -- how is Pentagon? How is the Defense Department now mobilizing?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning to both of you.

At this hour, the U.S. military doing a combination of things, getting themselves out of the way and standing by to offer assistance to those affected. First thing we should say, the U.S. Navy, which has a very substantial presence in Japan, of course, at this hour, says they do believe all their personnel are accounted for, minor damage to some U.S. Navy facilities in Japan as far as they can tell right now.

But let's move ahead to what the military is doing in that region, and you'll forgive me -- I'm going to read some information to you that we've just gotten in. A number of U.S. Navy ships at this hour getting under way.

The USS Essex, which is in Malaysia, is now, the Navy says -- is telling us, quote, "making preparations to depart Malaysia as early as tonight." They want to get out of the way of any problems.

The USS Blue Ridge, which arrived in Singapore just this morning is now unloading, putting disaster and humanitarian relief supplies onboard the Blue Ridge in Singapore, making preparations to depart Singapore and head to the disaster zone as fast as they can.

Another ship, the USS Tortuga based in Sasebo, Japan, is making preparations. They are putting a number of small amphibious vehicles on their ship. These are the kinds of things that can come off a large amphibious ship go to shore in water and help people with disaster relief and assistance.

I want to also add the Navy tells us a number of their ships in Yokosuka, Japan, are making adjustments so they can ride all of this out. Navy ships have to be very careful when they're in port -- or like other ships, of course, they can be damaged.

Finally, U.S. Navy ships in Guam, which is some distance away, are being told now to leave Guam, to put out to sea, if they can, and to move as quickly as they can out to sea from Guam. So, when the sea conditions worsen there, as is expected in the coming hours, they will not be in the way.

So, across the region, as you see, the U.S. military doing a combination of things trying to get out of the way and let the humanitarian relief operations begin, get themselves out of the way, and at the same time starting very quickly to lay in the plans for what may be a very significant humanitarian relief effort in Japan and across Asia -- T.J., Kiran.

HOLMES: All right. No question there. Barbara Starr, we appreciate you. I know you'll continue to get information. We'll continue to check with you this morning. Thanks so much.

STARR: Sure.

CHETRY: We want to check in with Rob Marciano as well. Actually, we're going to check in with Rob in just a second.

We're going to check in with Jill Dougherty right now who's at the State Department for us with more on the diplomatic efforts and how the United States may be helping out in this situation.

Hi, Jill.


Well, it's a pretty early, as you can imagine, but they are now, as always happens in disasters, the State Department has teams that can assist both from USAID and from the State Department. And so, what they will be doing is talking directly with the Japanese government, assessing what the government might need, and then trying to help out where appropriate and where requested.

Obviously, Japan is used to earthquakes. They are probably the best prepared country in the entire world for earthquakes. But that said, this is a huge one. And so, there may be other things the Japanese could call on the United States to do. The U.S. and Japan, of course, are major partners.

I did check with the Web site. We tried to get through, in fact, to the embassy in Tokyo with no success directly. But on their Web site, they do say they are going to be closed for the rest of this business day because of the earthquake.

They say for any information on the welfare and the whereabouts of family and friends in Japan, people should contact the State Department Web site, that is, for contact information. And then also, American citizens that are living in Japan -- and there are quite a number of them, of course -- should listen to local news reports, check with their local authorities, and contact their neighborhood evacuation centers.

And the other thing, I think, as you've been reporting, is this tsunami could affect many different countries. So, the State Department will be monitoring this and trying to figure out with countries that perhaps don't have the resources that Japan does, what they might be able to provide.

CHETRY: All right. Jill Dougherty for us this morning from the State Department -- we appreciate it. Thanks so much.

Earlier, we let you hear a little bit of a firsthand account by somebody who was in Tokyo when this happened, Matt Alt. He joins us this morning with more on what it's like there.

I know you said you had lived there for eight years, and this is the strongest you felt anything like this. What is it like right now?

ALT: Well, darkness has descended on the city. And right now, Tokyo is in a state of gridlock. All the major train lines have stopped. Many stores are closed.

And a lot of commuters and workers, and people who are just downtown are basically trapped there for the night right now.

HOLMES: Matt, does it necessarily look like a lot of destruction? I know people got shaken up pretty well and I know some of the train lines and things you described. But does it look like a lot of structural damage -- the infrastructure has a lot of damage, buildings damaged?

ALT: Tokyo is actually -- it's a very technological city, and they have a lot of technology in place for dealing with earthquakes. Some of those things are massive waterways and sluices that are used to divert the waters when they hit the city. Other things are shutting down elevators or evacuating buildings, and structures built into buildings to prevent them from falling in the case of a tremor. All of that seems to work pretty much according to plan, and the city, Tokyo, is actually in fairly good shape, although there are sporadic reports of fires and damage here.

But most of the damage is up near where the epicenter is, in northern Japan, Iwate Prefecture, about 200 kilometers north of Tokyo, and all up and down the Pacific coastline.

CHETRY: Yes, those pictures are astounding to see, the literal wall of water rushing through and just carrying along everything in its path, including those homes.

Have you heard -- I mean, these huge ships. I mean, it just -- it's astounding. We were also seeing pictures of people standing at higher -- the highest point in their homes or businesses and sort of waving anything they could have to get the attention of rescuers.

Do you have any news or information? Is anything trickling out about the status of those rescue efforts?

ALT: Well, definitely rescue efforts are under way. And there have been, until now, roughly 15 to 20 casualties reported. We expect that number to rise through the night.

But, currently, one of the most stunning developments is in Fukushima Prefecture, just about 130 kilometers north of Tokyo, there are nuclear reactors, one of which is experiencing some sort of fire. Another of which seems to be experiencing a problem with its cooling system. Right now, we don't have any kind of updates as to what might be happening up there, and officials are cautioning it's too early to say.

But, obviously, it's a very disturbing sort of thing when you hear about nuclear power facilities experiencing fires and coolant shutdowns.

CHETRY: And just to update people on that, so there is no confusion, the newest reporting coming out is saying that the four plants closest to where this hit in Japan have been safety shut down and that's according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. They say they've been shut down safely. And so there's not as big of a concern anymore about it -- what may have happened.

ALT: Well, I'm glad to hear that because there were quite a few reports of problems going on there. And I think one of the big problems going on in Japan right now is that the phone lines in particular are inundated.

It's just very difficult to put a phone call through. It's very difficult to get in contact with people. So the flow of information is largely restricted to what we're seeing on TV and just picking up here and there from friends.

HOLMES: All right. Matt Alt, don't go too far. We appreciate the update from you.

Live picture we're looking at here at some of the chaos happening there, like he was mentioning there. People are just trapped right now. They can't get anywhere. A lot of the train systems are shut down. But again he said the city itself is in pretty good shape.

Again, a live picture we're looking at here. But for our viewers, we're at the bottom of the hour here. We got an early start here on this AMERICAN MORNING, but the story this morning is an 8.9 magnitude quake hitting off the coast of Japan, shaking throughout the country, felt as far away as Tokyo, just some 230 miles away.

But now the danger is tsunami. Tsunamis, a wave -- waves of water starting to sweep through parts of that country and taking everything with it in its path. As you're seeing just some of the pictures here. And now as when an earthquake shakes the water like that, shakes under -- on the sea floor, it's kind of like you're throwing a rock, a pebble into the water there, and it sends out a ripple effect. So these waves are shooting out in all directions from where this earthquake struck.

So it's going the direction west to Japan. It's coming east as well. And there are warnings on the west coast for tsunami warnings.

But these are some of the pictures, that every time we even see them, you just say wow. As you this water taking everything with it in its path.

But we are getting a lot of video in like this. Just remarkable pictures.

I mentioned the tsunami warning just a moment ago. I want to turn to our Rob Marciano, who has more on that from Atlanta this morning.

But, Rob, Hawaii, California, west coast of the U.S., under tsunami warnings so we'll be watching this for us for several hours. But I want to keep this picture up as you start to talk to me.

But this is what we're talking about, folks. Just pictures you just can't even imagine. This water is moving at who knows how many miles per hour, taking everything with it.

Go ahead, Rob.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, I'll tell you this, what you're seeing now is not going to happen on the west coast of the U.S. The energy will be dissipated.

These are truly remarkable pictures of just how incredible the power of the ocean and the earth can be. When you're talking about a 30-foot wave traveling at that speed.

And by the way, in the open ocean, these things travel about 500 miles per hour. Now as they approach the coastline, the friction from the undersea surface will slow the bottom of that wave down, and then you get that crest.

Then you start to see that wave build, just like any other wave would build. The deal with tsunamis is that the waves between, from crest to trough, are much, much further apart, and they go much, much faster. And therefore, when they do strike the coastline, they have the momentum that takes them much further inland with that -- with that force.

As these things travel across the oceans, they do dissipate, just like a wave that you make in a pool or a bathtub. As it gets further away from where that initial epicenter -- that initial strike happened, the energy will be dissipated the further along the way where you are. You know around New Zealand or along the Pacific rim on the western edge of this ring of fire that we so often speak of. Typically we won't see a tsunami warning or a tsunami reach the West Coast, let alone Hawaii. But this has been such a huge event and a pretty shallow event at that.

It's a slightly smaller event than the Banda Ache quake at 9.1. This is 8.9. But this is a little bit more shallow than that. So, you know, six or half dozen of the other. Pretty much the same intensities when you talk about how much this shook Japan and how much this shook the Pacific and what that kind of a wave that we're talking about.

What you're seeing behind me is a number of -- these are the aftershocks. So the aftershocks that we've been seeing are in most cases well over 6 magnitude. So major quakes just from the aftershocks alone. And certainly we saw that across parts of -- we saw that across Chile and across Haiti as well.

As far as what we're looking at on the West Coast -- this guy is not working. What we're looking out on the West Coast is a tsunami warning that has been issued now for Oregon to the Washington border, moving down the coastline to California to Point Conception, which is just north of Santa Barbara in through -- they may have -- they may have extended this to the California -- to the Mexican border at this point.

So it looks like this may have been extended to the Mexican border. But basically what we're looking at for a timeline of when it's going to reach the U.S. west coast would be 7:00 a.m. Pacific Time. OK? So Pacific Time, 7:00 a.m., that would be 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time here. So in about, you know, 4 1/2 hours.

Hawaii, obviously it's going to hit Hawaii before then, and when it hits Hawaii, it's going to be -- have more strength to it. The wave could get conceivably be higher.

We have one expert on earlier that estimated that the wave that hits the West Coast here anywhere from two to four feet. That's -- you know, that's fairly significant. The wave that hits Hawaii could -- in all intents and purposes, be higher and stronger than that.

Expect it to hit Hawaii around 8:00 to 8:30 Eastern Time. So that's 3:00 in the morning Pacific Time.

So those are the two important dates here for our U.S. viewers and those who have friends and family who live over there in Hawaii. 3:00 a.m. local time, Hawaii, which for your time here on the East Coast will be right around 8:00 a.m. Eastern Time, guys.

So serious situations these things traveling about the speed of a jumbo jet, 500 miles an hour across the ocean. It will get to South America as well. It's traveling towards new Zealand and Australia.

But the rule of thumb, obviously, and the common sense tells you that the farther you are away from the epicenter of that quake and beginning of that tsunami, the less intense it will be.

But this will be the strongest tsunami that we've seen on the West Coast certainly in the last 10 years. We'll have to check the records for this. But it could be decades. And not only for the West Coast but for Hawaii as well. So a scary situation.

And there is a degree of the unknown, T.J. and Kiran, as to how high this wave will be because there's a lot of factors that go in. You know, how much of the -- how much of the bottom of that ocean floor move. We really don't know.

How much does that energy get dissipated as it travels across the ocean floor. What happens with -- as that wave interacts with bathymetry (ph) or the ocean bottom as it ramps up towards the Hawaiian islands. That will totally -- that will totally how much -- how high that wave is, and how far inland it goes. Same deal for the West Coast.

So that's the scary part of this. We really don't know exactly how high that wave is going to be and how far inland, what kind of force it will be traveling with, when it makes -- when it makes landfall, so to speak, across the shores of the U.S., both the continental side on the islands and up there in Alaska as well. Guys?

CHETRY: Rob, thank you so much. We'll be checking in with you throughout the morning for the latest. I know you're getting all the latest updates from NOAA and the USGS and all of that.

Thanks so much.

We want to bring in seismologist John Rundle, who has been with us since we started here at 5:00 a.m. There are also some other reports coming out. We're still needing to confirm them, but -- of other smaller quakes hitting areas, perhaps even Hawaii.

Is this expected after an earthquake this large?

RUNDLE: Well, you know, this question always comes up. It came up after the Chilean earthquake as well. It's -- you know, it's hard to say. Opinions are divided on this in the scientific community.

I can tell you that after the Good Friday or during -- at the time of the Good Friday earthquake in 1964, there were strain steps -- measurable strain increments reported in Hawaii on sensitive instruments there.

You know, earthquakes tend to occur in clusters, and we say they're correlated. Normally, it's not too surprising to see groups of earthquakes occur within several hundred miles of each other. Often we consider those aftershocks and so forth.

With these really large earthquakes, I think we're -- I think the community is beginning to think about the idea that maybe you can have earthquakes, you know, thousands of kilometers away that are associated with such a large earthquake, a magnitude 8.9 or a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. So you know, it's something we are beginning to think about. It's difficult to prove, though, unambiguously, because you can't sort of do a controlled experiment. But I think our science and the simulations we do on the computers that are sort of trying to get at this from indirect means do indicate that in a lot of cases, it's not maybe unreasonable to think that these large earthquakes, these super giant earthquakes can cause -- can trigger earthquakes basically really far away.

HOLMES: All right. As we continue to show our audience new pictures that we constantly get in of the devastation we are seeing after this -- after this tsunami. But 8.9 magnitude quake.

We're still on the line here with Mr. John Rundle, who is a UC Davis professor and also a seismologist.

And sir, this is an 8.9 quake we saw several hours ago, but over the past few days there have been other earthquakes in the area the past few days. And I was reading a word called foreshocks. It sounds almost as if -- is it possible to think -- oh, we just lot Mr. Rundle. We'll get him back on the line and get that question in to him.

But again, to recap to our viewers here. We got an early start on this AMERICAN MORNING because of what we saw in Tokyo, 2:46 Tokyo Time, 12:46 on the East Coast. An earthquake magnitude 8.9 hitting off the coast. About 230 miles from Tokyo itself, but just 80 miles off the actually coastline, off one of the most populous islands of Tokyo this morning.

About 80 miles, an 8.9 magnitude quake. It had people shaking in Tokyo -- again like I said 230 miles away.

From what we hear, Tokyo still in pretty good shape. A good structurally sound city there. But now the danger, and as you're seeing it there, the pictures of this tsunami that was triggered. And we have seen pictures of water that is some 60-plus miles inland that has made its way, these waves. And it's taking with it everything that in its path.

You're seeing it knock around a boat right here. But other pictures of cars. And then you see another picture there. But this is the picture, I think, that struck most of us this morning. This is just unbelievable. This is the one we're talking about.

Described to be some 60 miles -- just imagine it, folks. This is 60 miles from the actual coast. And you have a wave of water which is moving who knows how fast. It's a several -- I mean in some cases this can move hundreds of miles an hour, but certainly slowing down once it gets on land.

But taking with it everything that's in its path. You see farmland here. Still a fairly populated area. Nothing like the 13 million that live in Tokyo, but still this northern area -- our Kyung Lah, our reporter there, saying about a million people live in this northern area just north of Tokyo where this wall of water is hitting. But these are the pictures that have just struck us all and giving us an idea of the kind of destruction we are seeing. And again, this is still, folks, a developing disaster. Tsunami warnings for about 20 countries now, including the west coast of the United States.

We're at 42 minutes past the hour. We're going to take a quick break, continue to collect information for you, and we will be back with this special coverage on this AMERICAN MORNING.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

CHETRY: Welcome back. If you're just joining us, we're 15 minutes until the top of the hour. And we're following the latest on this 8.9 magnitude earthquake that hit in Tokyo. It struck a little before 3:00 p.m. local time. That was just before 1:00 a.m. Eastern Time here in New York.

The epicenter was in the sea, located about 230 miles from Tokyo. And this quake rattled homes and businesses, caused many to collapse. Cars toppled off of bridges. And right now millions of people are without power. They say power was cut to some four million homes in and around Tokyo.

The bullet trains north of the country stopped. They also had major problems with landslides, people being buried in the aftermath of that.

Right now the confirmed number of people killed, 32. But many experts expect that to go much higher.

Again, these are pictures that you're looking at from Tokyo. But this quake then triggered a massive tsunami. Thirteen-foot wall of water having a devastating impact along the northeast coastline.

And we're going to show you those pictures now where the waves just literally devouring this farmland several miles inland, washing away homes, cars, trucks. You saw huge ships, anything in its path.

And again, we'll be showing you more of those dramatic pictures in just a moment.

Also, just a new update for you. The U.S. Geological Survey is confirming now that a smaller -- a smaller earthquake, a magnitude 4.6 hit Hawaii. They're saying that this happened at 10:58 p.m. Hawaii time.

And they are also issuing tsunami warnings for this earthquake -- I'm -- yes, for Hawaii and the U.S. coastline. This stretches all the way from the California-Mexico border all the way up to Alaska.

Meantime back in Japan, near Tokyo, incredible pictures of an oil refinery burning out of control. Japan also had four major nuclear plants that were closest to the epicenter of this quake. They claim now that those were shut down safely.

And the prime minister saying that, as of right now, there are no reports of any radioactive material leaking from that power plant.

HOLMES: And, again, this was about 230 miles away -- away from Tokyo, city of 13 million people.

Our reporter Kyung Lah is there.

Kyung, you were talking a little earlier that in fact there was about several minutes it felt like this earthquake was shaking. We talked to another gentleman a short time ago who said, you know, Japan is pretty structurally sound. They know how to do this, if you will. And Tokyo is pretty much intact.

We have a two-pronged disaster, if you will. We've got the tsunami and we've got the earthquake. Let's start with the earthquake.

What kind of shape in fact is Tokyo in right now?

KYUNG LAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I can tell you that right now there is an infrastructure problem in Tokyo. But before I get to that, let me tell you what was a shared experience in this city of 13 million people.

And I just want to give you a small snapshot. And remember, we are hundreds of miles away from the epicenter of the quake. But just take a look at what happened inside our bureau. We haven't picked up anything. The papers all started flying. The walls were shaking. The lights were flickering.

Back over here where we have our tapes, they have all fallen off the shelves. And this is, again, a very large distance from where the epicenter of the quake was. And this is just one small snapshot of what people across the city felt.

There were reports of damage of some ceilings falling. There are many people who felt the shaking for several minutes.

I was in one of Tokyo's busiest train stations, Tokyo station, and in that station we felt the shaking for several minutes. The train lines were shut down. The signs were swinging back and forth. The lights were flickering. You could hear children crying.

And though there wasn't panic, because people are quite used to earthquakes, even an earthquake of this size, and this did rise to a higher level of concern, this was certainly something sizable. This was different. And especially when the train lines stopped and the underground was told, everybody get out.

That's when people knew that we are on the verge of a national disaster because this is a country where, if your train is just 15 seconds late, there's something wrong. That usually tells people that there's something wrong. So to have an entire train line in one of the most connected cities in the world completely shut down, that is highly unusual, and that raises concern for people.

So in the streets of Tokyo, people are on foot. They're trying to get home. But many people, just like New York City, have to commute a great distance, and it is very difficult to get home tonight because all the taxis are taken. There are no train lines. And as far as what we can tell, it is just very, very difficult to get around. So a lot of people walking around trying to figure out what they're going to do.

That's the crisis in Tokyo.

And so the prime minister has urged people to remain calm and just move about your business as best as you can given the situation.

The crisis up north is a different magnitude. Because of what we've seen, the tsunami, the massive debris that's moving across that region, that is a search and rescue operation.

It is still winter here, winter conditions, and they are trying to do the search and rescue now in the dark. So it is going to be a totally different disaster up north, and we may not understand the scope of it for eight hours until there's light.

HOLMES: All right. Our Kyung Lah. We appreciate the update from you. We will continue to check in with you plenty throughout this morning. We appreciate you showing us around that newsroom as well. A lot of places look like that. But, again, it's the pictures that are outside right now with these tsunami warnings that are really -- that are really just striking this morning.

CHETRY: Yes. It makes you wonder how you even begin to, A, find those people, and B, clean up after that type of devastation.

Thank you, Kyung.

Meantime, tsunami warnings issued for the entire U.S. west coast now. John Rundle is a seismologist and professor at UC Davis. He's also the founder of the earthquake research group and he joins us live from Santa Fe again this morning.

And again we did confirm in fact by the USGS that a 4.6 earthquake did hit in Hawaii as well.

RUNDLE: Yes. There's -- you know, there's expected to be earthquakes in many locations around the world. And of course, some of them are likely associated with this major earthquake, and some of them would have occurred anyway.

So earthquakes can strike essentially without warning. And this one -- this one basically did. I'm not aware of any foreshocks that occurred prior to it. We recognize Japan, in particular, is a place where the earthquake's seismicity likely occurs at 10 times the rate that you see in California in the U.S.

You know, in the Northridge earthquake, one of the interesting -- back in '94, in that earthquake, that was a magnitude 6.7, the largest and most destructive one to strike -- the most destructive one anyway to strike Southern California in a couple of decades. Many of these steel reinforced buildings in downtown Los Angeles suffered damage to their steel structures, steel I-beams and whatnot, the joints cracked, and so forth, and that wasn't apparent until earthquake engineers began taking apart the buildings, basically looking to see what had happened.

So even for buildings like in places like in Tokyo and Sendai that may have appeared to stand up following this earthquake, once they start looking at those in some detail, they may find serious structural damage which might indicate that the whole buildings would have to be torn down and essentially rebuilt, adding to the damage and the cost there.

HOLMES: And, Mr. Rundle, you used this word just a moment ago -- and again to our viewers, as we continue to watch these pictures. Again this is several miles inland where this wave of water is washing just everything with it in its path.

But again, Mr. Rundle on the line with us, a seismologist.

Sir, you used this word foreshocks. There were foreshocks, apparently, leading up to this earthquake off the coast of Japan. Several days they saw several of these foreshocks, if you will.

That might not be a term a lot of people are familiar with. But those foreshocks, did those kind of give us an indication that something big was coming?

RUNDLE: Well, the problem is foreshocks don't stand up and wave a little flag and say, I'm a foreshock. Essentially, they're earthquakes, just like, you know, any other earthquakes.

Now in retrospect we can go back and look and say, well, these earthquakes occurred in the epicentral region of the larger earthquake, and therefore we think they're probably associated with that large earthquake. They were probably an impending precursor. But at the time those foreshocks occurred, that wasn't necessarily apparent.

So that's the difficulty. Foreshocks look like any other earthquakes. And so it's just not clear, you know, when an earthquake -- and it's occurring. You know when a smaller earthquake is just a smaller earthquake and when it signals that something larger is about to happen.

CHETRY: I want to ask you another question. We're getting, you know, this information from the government about these tsunami arrival times, I guess you could say. But it's important to note that just because they're saying this could -- these arrival times happen, it doesn't mean that an actual wave is imminent, right?

I mean, so we have this breakdown of where they may be coming, including areas around Auckland, New Zealand, all the way into other parts -- all the way down to South America.

What exactly does it mean for these locales that are getting these warnings about the -- when a tsunami may come?

RUNDLE: Well, you know, just like weather forecasting and weather prediction and so forth, there are computer models that are run routinely in a situation like this to tell you pretty precisely when the -- when the wave will hit.

The uncertainty, so to speak, is the amplitude of the wave, or the size of the wave when it hits the shore. There are a number of things that can affect this, as some of your other guests have said. These waves travel quite rapidly, at about 500 miles an hour, about the speed of a jetliner in the open ocean. And they're not very high.

They're maybe a couple of feet high. I think somebody said earlier that some of these waves have been actually estimated to be about three feet high in the open ocean. That's actually pretty high, to be honest.

What happens when these waves get to shore is they slow down. The water gets shallower. And so they slow down a lot. The water behind them sort of piles up. So the height of the wave increases rapidly.

And so you get this high wave, this high amplitude wave moving fairly slowly, you know, onto the shoreline and inland. And that's what you're seeing in those pictures. Those waves in those pictures traveling, it looks to me, like 20 to 30 miles an hour. And they look to me like also they're probably, you know, 10, 20 feet high.

So that's sort of consistent with this idea. So the computer models tell us precisely really when those waves are expected to first hit. What they can't do quite as well is tell you how large they are. We do have this one experience that we know from the geologic record, that there was a massive earthquake off Oregon and Washington in 1700 A.D., and that was a four-meter earthquake -- it was a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, by the way, it's estimated.

And there were three to four-foot high waves that struck Japan 10 hours later that came from that earthquake. So it's quite possible that the coast of California, Washington, Oregon will see waves of 10 to four -- excuse me, three to four-feet high, you know, as a result of this -- as a result of this earthquake.

CHETRY: All right. John Rundle, great to talk to you again. Thanks so much. We'll check in with you again a little bit later.

HOLMES: We're keeping an eye on these pictures. And to our viewers, anybody that may be just joining us, well, we've got a two- pronged disaster kind of going on here. A massive earthquake of historic proportions, quite frankly, folks. One of the largest ones the world has ever seen.

An 8.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan. That was disaster number one, if you will. It really shook even Tokyo, some 230 miles away. That triggered, though, a tsunami, a tsunami that has hit the northern part, just north of Tokyo now, and that wave is sweeping through as far inland as 60-plus miles, as we have seen. Also has triggered tsunami warnings for at least 20 countries, including some parts of the West Coast of the U.S.

Want to turn to a geophysicist now, Gerard Fryer -- Gerard Fryer, I should say. He's with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

Thank you for giving us an update. Everyone is concerned, sir. Certainly our viewers in the U.S.

What does that mean -- a tsunami warning right for the West Coast and Hawaii? What should they expect? What should they prepare for?

GERARD FRYER, PACIFIC TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER: Well, they should prepare for coastal flooding. As we talk, I am watching the tsunami being reported by Thai Gauge and Midway, and it looks like it's oscillating through about five feet.

That may not sound very much, but -- but that translates to larger wave heights when we reach Hawaii because of the difference in the shape of the islands. So we have a full coastal evacuation going on in Hawaii.

And that's just the -- that's just the second wave of the tsunami. It will be about another 10, 15 minutes before the third wave arrives, and we have an idea how big that is.

CHETRY: And you are quick to warn people or urge us to point out that a tsunami is actually a series of waves, and the first wave may not be the largest.

FRYER: That's probably the most important message that the tsunami is more than one wave, and the waves can be separated by 20 minutes or half an hour. So just because you see a wave come up and then the ocean go back again, that doesn't mean it's over.

HOLMES: Mr. Fryer, something else you said -- and it might not -- like you said, it doesn't sound like a lot. When you hear five feet, a five-foot wave, you said by the time it gets to Hawaii, you expect that to be a larger wave and because of the layout of Hawaii essentially, you can expect it to be higher. So you talk about coastal flooding, but what kind of damage -- if we do hear that. It doesn't sound like a lot, but what kind of damage can a wave of five feet, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, really do?

FRYER: Well, when a wave that has an amplitude of five feet, if it's only a surfing wave, it doesn't do very much. But if it's a tsunami, which is, say, 10 minutes from one wave to the next, that means it has a tremendous amount of water in it and it can flood inland conceivably, you know, a quarter of a mile or something. And if it comes in with any force, it will pick things up and carry them into other things and you can get damage and all sorts of things happening. So it's a --

CHETRY: Sorry, we're just getting in some information that I'd like to get your take on. The spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent expressing fears that this tsunami -- the waves from the tsunami could be so high that they would wash over entire islands in the Pacific. What can you do in that case? How can you prepare? And do you know how likely it is?

FRYER: Washing over islands is not going to happen. And, in fact, Carl Ethel (ph)'s tsunami is actually a very small hazard on Carl Ethel because the outer slopes of Carl Ethel (ph) are very, very steep and the tsunami basically doesn't see it. It's when you come to a big volcanic island like Hawaii, then it builds up and you can get very large waves. That's part of the reason why midway is a bit misleading because it's Carl Ethel (ph).

HOLMES: All right, Gerard Fryer on the line with us. Sir, we -- I know you are busy and you are working. We appreciate you giving us some time and some perspective. We will continue to check in with you this morning.