March 11, 2011 Updated at 1:36 p.m.
Japan’s biggest earthquake on record has countries throughout the Pacific on high alert, as more than 50 countries are watching and waiting to see if tsunamis hit their shores.
The 8.9 magnitude quake struck off the Japanese coast at 2:46 p.m. local time on Friday, sending a massive wall of water hurtling towards the coastal city of Sendai (180 miles northeast of Tokyo). The fast-moving water carried away houses, cars, and even ships in the Sendai harbor. The Associated Press reports that initial recovery efforts discovered up to 300 bodies floating in the city and farmland near the city after the 23-foot wave struck the city. Most victims appeared to have drowned. Japan's Kyodo News agency said the death toll is likely to exceed 1,000.
Southwest in Tokyo, workers and residents clogged the streets as they tried to make their way home through the damaged capital city, according to The AP. More than 50 aftershocks have hit the area, Fox News reports, many of them greater than a magnitude 6.0. Public transportation is mostly shut down, stranding hundreds of thousands.
In Hawaii, where the first tsunami waves were predicted to crash at 9 a.m., officials are breathing a tentative sigh of relief. The initial waves peaked in Maui with 7-foot waves, CNN reports, and no major damage has been reported. Hawaii and other potentially affected nations had hours of advanced warning that Japan lacked, according to the Wall Street Journal, allowing people to move away from beaches and seek higher ground. Still, officials urge caution as further waves could still surprise residents.
"The situation we're confronting right now is unpredictable. We do not know how many waves are going to be coming," said Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle, according to the Wall Street Journal. "We do not know which wave, if any wave, causes the most damage and how long the series of waves can last. As a result of that, it is our responsibility to do those things which are absolutely essential to ensure that human life is saved."
Coastal communities from Alaska to Guatemala to Russia remain on alert, although Indonesia, Australia and Guam have lifted their tsunami warnings. Waves are expected to hit the West Coast shortly after 11 a.m.
Tsunami waves are particularly dangerous because they can travel at speeds of 500 miles per hour, and the swells can rise and fall.
"The tsunami is more than one wave, and the waves can be separated by 20 minutes or half an hour,” said Gerard Fryer of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, according to CNN. “So just because you see a wave come up and then go back in the ocean again, that doesn't mean it's over.”
Relief and development groups like World Vision are quickly mobilizing to deploy in multiple countries.
"Our offices in Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are on alert and staff in coastal areas have been advised," said Geoff Shepherd, World Vision's humanitarian and emergency affairs director for the Asia-Pacific region.
"We've also alerted our Global Rapid Response Team and have put team members on standby for possible deployment to affected areas. This could be a very serious disaster in multiple countries and our staff are prepared to respond."