In nature's hands

March 11, 2011 5:47:57 PM PST
Nature today showing us just how little we can sometimes control, and how little power we can sometimes feel.

A horrific 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan this morning - centered a couple of hundred miles outside and the country's biggest quake on record - killing hundreds, launching tsunamis that have swept away trains and boats and cars and houses and people, sparking fires, and bringing the world's largest city to a standstill.

Tokyo, with its 13 million people - four times the size of New York - has many sectors without electricity, little phone service, just one working subway, businesses (including Japan's huge automakers) closed, and millions stranded and going nowhere. Japan's main nuclear plant, which supplies much of the country's electricity, is reportedly in danger of overheating and - the worst-case scenario - leaking.

The problem is that the outside water system that is supposed to cool the reactor in the event of a problem - sort of a fail-safe back-up - is without power, so no water can be delivered. Without a constant supply of water to cool the radioactive fuel, the pressure inside the nuclear reactor will rise. Eventually, and again it's a worse-case scenario, the heat becomes so intense, the core could melt. That's not a good thing and once that happens, the horse, as they say, is out of the barn. Or, in this case, the radioactivity is out of the reactor.

The U.S. has sent back-up generators to the facility, hoping to get the cooling process back on-line.

The bottom line: This is a big deal, or at least could be.

Our N.J. Burkett will be in Tokyo tomorrow morning and covering the devastation for us. Meanwhile, there's a large Japanese-American population in the tri-state, and many are worried about their families and friends half a world away.

The pictures of the tsunami are simply terrifying. Waves of water devouring everything in their path. And we're also getting word that the Japanese were given a heads up about the quake. An early-warning earthquake system apparently worked, with a warning message appearing on national TV, radio as well as mobile phone screens.

Similarly, a reverse-911 system kicked into action in California, where a tsunami warning was issued this morning.

President Obama spoke personally about the quake at a news conference at the White House this afternoon. "I'm heartbroken by this tragedy. I think when you see what's happening in Japan, you are reminded that, for all our differences in culture or language or religion, that ultimately humanity is one. And when we face these kinds of natural disasters, whether it's in New Zealand or Haiti or Japan, then you think about your own family, and you think, how would you feel if you lost a loved one, or if your entire life savings were gone because of the devastation? And the Japanese people are such close friends of ours, and I have such a close personal friendship and connection to the Japanese people, in part because I grew up in Hawaii, where I was very familiar with Japanese culture, that that just makes, you know, our concerns that much more acute."

We'll have the latest on the earthquake, the tsunami and the aftermath, tonight at 11.

Nature's other fury can be seen along some of the rivers in our area, especially in New Jersey. About five inches of rain fell above the rivers last night, and now the rivers are rising. The worst of it at this writing is the Ramapo River - already more than five inches above flood stage and overflowing its banks. The Passaic River and the Pompton River are expected to crest tomorrow, with flooding in towns they run through. And they're not expected to recede for several days.

It's a mess. New Jersey - already under a state of emergency, with state police and National Guard troops ready to move in.

We'll have the latest on the storm and the rivers, led by our Meteorologist Lee Goldberg, tonight at 11.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Rob Powers with the night's sports. I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11, right after a special edition of 20/20, on the disaster in Japan.


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