TOKYO — After years of preparation for the killer earthquake that would clearly one day strike, Japan found itself crippled Friday by floods, power failures, fires, shuttered airports and paralyzed transit systems from a 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck off the Pacific coast, killing hundreds of people and setting off a massive tsunami.
In magnitude, the quake was the largest ever in Japan and the fifth-strongest on record, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Japan's chief Cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said that an "extremely large number of people" had been killed, the official Kyodo news agency reported.
The agency said 200 to 300 bodies were found on the beach in Sendai, a city of 1 million people on the northeast coast that was one of the hardest hit. Another 110 people had been confirmed dead as of midnight Japan time, and the toll was sure to rise significantly as the full extent of the damage was assessed.
The earthquake struck 80 miles offshore at 2:46 p.m. Friday Japan time.
The most immediate concern was the safety of the nation's nuclear plants. Some 3,000 people living near a nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, north of Tokyo, were evacuated because of a reactor cooling malfunction, but the government said that no radiation was leaking. Authorities had turned off 11 power plants, and 4 million people were reported to be without electricity.
"We ask the people of Japan to be cautious and vigilant. We are asking the people of Japan to act calmly," Prime Minister Naoto Kan said in a somber address to the nation.
Military aircraft were being dispatched to the coastline to assess the damage. Aerial footage released to Japanese television showed images that looked to be straight out of horror movies. A churning wave of sludge carrying cars, boats and trees was plowing across the low-lying farmland near the coast. The Sendai airport was partially underwater with employees taking refuge on the roof. There were more than 80 fires reported across the country, including several in large oil refineries.
Late Friday, the news service reported that a dam had broken in Fukushima prefecture, washing away homes.
In Tokyo, 240 miles from the epicenter, the physical damage was less severe but the psychological toll was enormous, a jolting reminder of the country's vulnerability. With subways, buses and trains closed, much of the city's work force took to the streets at night in an attempt to get home. Late into the night, the streets were still filled with people, some of them wearing white hard hats, which are given out to state employees. They also carried water and first-aid kits.
"The earthquake wasn't that destructive here in Tokyo, but even then I couldn't use my cell phone, couldn't send e-mails," said Megumi Ishii, 26, who was an hour into what she expected would be a six-hour walk home from work. "What happens if a bigger one hits Tokyo? It was really scary and unsettling."
Shinji Tanaka, 32, an IT company employee in Tokyo, said he was on the third floor of an office building when the ground shook. "I got under the desk. We followed the orders of the person who had been appointed for this sort of thing. We do drills about once a year. And we have helmets and other goods in the office."
Japan sits on the juncture of four of the Earth's tectonic plates, making it one of the most seismically active countries in the world. It has also spent more money and more time than any other country trying to prepare.
Every year on Sept. 1, the anniversary of the Tokyo earthquake of 1923 that killed more than 140,000 people, much of the population participates in quake drills. Construction standards are also exacting. But there is less that Japan can do to gird itself against tsunami waves. Despite an elaborate warning system, the waves Friday traveled too fast for residents to escape from low-lying coastal areas.
(Los Angeles Times staff writers Demick and Pierson reported from Beijing. Special correspondent Hall reported from Tokyo.)