The scenes look straight out of a horror film: Cars, homes and buildings swept out to sea after the most devastating earthquake ever known to hit Japan unleashed powerful waves Friday across the Pacific. Several hundred people are known dead; hundreds more are missing. That toll is expected to rise as a fuller picture of the catastrophe emerges in the coming days.
The magnitude 8.9 quake was the seventh worst on record. It brought a 23-foot wall of water onto Japan's east coast, pushing ships, cars and anything else in its way up to several miles inland before reversing and carrying that same debris back out to sea. Japanese rescuers were looking for hundreds of people feared to have been drawn away in boats offshore. Homes, highways and rail and communication lines lay in ruin Friday as the tsunami sent waves surging into Hawaii, the U.S. West Coast and Mexico.
President Barack Obama was right to pledge immediate help. One U.S. aircraft carrier is headed to Japan to join a second one already there. International assistance will be critical in these early days to reach survivors, to care for the sick and wounded and to begin rebuilding streets, electricity, telephone grids and other basics of civil order. Japan is a major global power, and the United States has a security and economic interest — beyond the moral imperative — to commit its formidable logistical abilities to get the country back on its feet.
The impacts to nations across the Pacific and the Americas had been mild as of late Friday. From early indications, it appears the tsunami alarm system worked well in alerting nations in the Far East to evacuate low-lying areas and take other precautions. This is one bright spot that should not be overlooked, especially given that dozens of aftershocks continued to rock Japan into this morning. The global community will need to mobilize quickly and offer what assistance is needed. And it will need to learn from and build on the coordinated response that helped limit the extent of this catastrophe.