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8.9 Magnitude Earthquake Rocks Japan; Tsunami West Coast Warnings; U.S. Military Response to Quake

Aired March 11, 2011 - 12:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. I want to catch you up to speed here.

Rescuers say there are now hundreds of bodies in the debris left by a tremendous wave of water. The tsunami hit northern Japan minutes after an 8.9 earthquake struck offshore.

The tsunami generated high waves that reached Hawaii hours ago, the biggest a seven-foot wave at Maui. Officials say there is no significant damage at this point.

A tsunami warning remains in place for the West Coast of the United States. Waves began hitting Washington State just this last hour, and should spread south to California over this hour. Tsunami warnings span the entire breadth of the Pacific Basin for a time today from Indonesia to Alaska to South America.

Violent jolts from the quake shook Japan for more than a minute.

This video is from a CNN iReporter. Unbelievable pictures.

The quake has paralyzed much of Japan, bringing businesses, mass transit to a standstill -- look at more pictures -- plunging millions into the dark.

An American living in Tokyo described the rolling sensation of the earthquake as sustained vertigo.


MATT ALT, AMERICAN LIVING IN TOKYO: The ground was rolling for an extended period of time. I wasn't exactly sure what to do or where to go. I had never been prepared for anything like this.

My wife and I stood outside and basically held on to 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 could not stay on your feet. You had to kind of crouch down in a ball or put your back against something so you didn't fall.


MALVEAUX: Officials say they are ready for the worst at one of Japan's nuclear power plants. The nuclear core is not cooling following the earthquake. If the core melts down, radioactive material could spew into the air. A few thousand people have already been evacuated.

And President Obama will take questions from reporters just minutes from now, 12:30 Eastern, our time there. Before that, the president is expected to make comments on the disaster in Japan, as well as talk about rising oil and gas prices.

Our Chad Myers is following the latest on the tsunami threat, where the waves are hitting now. And we want to go to Chad to explain, where has the tsunami already hit, and how close is it to certain areas of the West Coast?

What do we know so far, Chad?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: The tsunami has hit Hawaii. I mean, there was an 8-foot, 7-foot swell in Hawaii -- 7 up and 7 down, so that's a pretty big up and down across parts of Oahu. And also, we just heard of the reports at the big island. But, really, Maui looked like it probably took the biggest brunt.

The whole area, though, I think that the shift of -- and this is just the latest really -- that the wave has moved farther down into the South Pacific, and not been generated toward our part of the Pacific, into the western part. I have been looking at these pictures.

The wave is now one hour tardy in some of these pictures that it should be there. It should be there.

It should be six-feet high. We're not seeing really anything. I'm sure there is some fluctuation in the coastal areas there of northern California, Oregon and Washington, but what we're working for now and waiting for is the tsunami warning center to give us an update on, what are these swells? What are you seeing?

What I was seeing is that Hawaii, as it was hit, and also Midway Island -- it was hit by about a six-to-eight-foot wave -- that is toward the south part of the United States, and also the southern part of South America. So maybe central parts of Mexico and also Central America may be hit a lot harder than we might be hit up here.

We're continuing to watch everything. I still don't see a significant tsunami-generated event for the western part of the United States. It could still be on the way. Tsunamis sometimes can be slower than we expect, and it still could be out there, and not enough buoys, not enough people, not enough ships to tell us where that wave might be.

So don't let your guard down. Don't get on a beach. It's not time to get out there and say, OK, time to surf.

I have seen some people trying to surf in this. Not the place to be.


MYERS: But if you want to take your ship out there, move it out a couple -- five miles so that -- the wave in the ocean is very small. Five miles out, you wouldn't even notice it. But and if you are expecting it and you don't want your boat to be in danger in a harbor, where the water might go up six or eight feet, take the boat out to sea. Other than that, just stay away from everything on the West Coast, at least for the two to three hours, before the tsunami warning center figures out what's going on.

MALVEAUX: And Chad, explain to us again why it's so dangerous if you are out there.

MYERS: Water is heavy. And you can just see the damage and devastation that the water has done. It seems to be moving very slowly in those Japanese pictures, but, yet, when it hits a building, it takes the entire building.

If you get hit by a wave standing on the Atlantic coast, and the wave is three-feet tall, to your waist, you are going to get knocked over. Well, think about that in triplicate, and then how much energy and how much force that water might have against you or your pets or your house, or whatever it might be. You need to stay away from it.

MALVEAUX: All right. Chad, thanks. We'll be keeping a close eye on that.

I want to go live to southern California now for the latest on the conditions there. That's where Casey Wian is. And he joins us. He is in Seal Beach. It is just south of Los Angeles.

Casey, what are you seeing there?

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm seeing the exact same thing that Chad was just talking about. The tsunami was supposed to hit this area, at least the first tsunami wave, about 20, 25 minutes ago. And if you can see the water behind me, it's very, very calm. We have seen waves here hitting the beach, but no more significant than you would see on any normal day.

Now, local officials tell us that one of the reasons may be because it's low tide. And so that is keeping the volumes of water away from higher ground and away from even being noticeable so far.

Despite that, beaches here throughout Orange County remain closed. The Seal Beach Pier here behind me is also closed.

Officials are most worried about the potential of heavy currents in the water. So they want people staying out of the marinas, out of the harbors, and completely off the beaches. And most people, from what we can tell throughout the morning, have complied.

We have seen some other precautions taking place throughout the day. The USS Dubuque was pulled out of the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station because of the potential danger that it could suffer if a big tsunami wave came through. So far, we haven't seen that. We've heard of one school closed, but so far life is pretty much normal here. Just waiting until we get the all-clear from local officials to allow people back on to these beaches. But for right now, beaches here in Orange County remain closed as a precaution -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Casey, I'm curious there -- we were actually looking at pictures of people in the water. There are actually people who are in the water, not just on the beach, but in the water. Have the authorities told you or anybody else, maybe you've got to move back here, this isn't a safe place to be, or are they satisfied that everybody is OK?

WIAN: No, they are satisfied that everyone is all right. We're on higher ground, maybe 15 feet or so above sea level. And you can see behind me there is a parking lot between us and the beach.

So, if unexpectedly, a bigger tsunami wave did come through, everyone tells us that we're fine where we are. And frankly, here it's been remarkable.

I've covered event likes this, storms and other things in the past, where you do see people trying to get out into the water, and so far, very little evidence of that here. People are complying with the police warnings and staying away from the water, staying off the beaches.

And I should also mention that just 20 miles or so out that way -- you can't see it because of the marine layer -- is Catalina Island. And the Catalina Flyer just took off from Long Beach. It's a boat that goes to Catalina, just took off from Long Beach a few minutes ago. So, in some ways, maritime traffic remains absolutely normal -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Casey, thank you very much.

We do know those folks that we saw in the water should not be in the water, but it does look like things have settled down, at least where Casey Wian is.

We want to also show you as well -- there's some new video that is coming into CNN. It is of a refinery explosion. That is out of Chiba, Japan.

This happened after an aftershock. The video was captured by one of our iReporters, and I want you to take a look at that. You can see the explosion. I want to take a listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right over there. Oh. It just blew up! Whew. Whew, this is crazy!


MALVEAUX: Well, obviously, he is reacting to that, but you can tell it's a dangerous situation not just from the earthquake, but the numerous aftershocks that people are facing there. That, an explosion that took place at a oil refinery as people cope with not just this monster earthquake, but everything that follows, the aftershocks, and then clearly the tsunami that followed as well.

We don't want you to forget we have other news. The president is going to be holding a news conference. That's going to happen at the bottom of the hour. We're going to go live to the White House.


MALVEAUX: Well, the U.S. military says that all the troops are accounted for, those in Japan accounted for. There has been no damage to the installations and the ships there. Our U.S. forces are being called on to help, however.

Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr, she's joining us with some of the details.

First, I guess the good news is, is that the military base and our forces there, no damage, but obviously the U.S. military is going to want to step in and try to help.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Oh, absolutely, Suzanne, as they have in the past. In fact, the Pentagon just telling us a short time ago that the Japanese government has now made that official request for help. So, a number of U.S. Navy warships are assembling and steaming toward Japan.

Let's run it down for everybody so you can see the scope of the response, which actually began to be assembled in the overnight hours.

It starts with the USS Ronald Reagan, one of those big U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. It's in the western Pacific, making its way to Japan.

The other ships also headed in that direction, the USS Essex. It was in Malaysia. It's on its way.

Blue Ridge was in Singapore. The USS Tortuga, in Sasebo, Japan. Also, two other ships, the Harpers Ferry and the Germantown, in the Pacific.

What they are all doing is trying to steam towards Japan. They have helicopters on board, they have disaster assistance supplies on board, some amphibious landing capability, all the things that you would need in this terrible situation in Japan.

As we have seen that video unfold over the last several hours, flooding, massive destruction. Roads are out, highways are out, very little transportation, all the things that are needed to try and get around. Expect to see U.S. helicopters join, of course, Japanese helicopters in the skies, trying to deliver some aid to the most stricken areas.

We are told that U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, flying overhead, are already beginning to map the disaster zone, trying to see exactly where the largest impacts are and where they can try to get help to as quickly as possible -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Barbara Starr, thank you very much.

I want to go back to Kyung Lah. She is in Tokyo.

Kyung, can you hear us?

KYUNG LAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I'm using a laptop and Skype. Trying to get a mobile connection that is steady is very, very difficult.

We are still feeling the after-effects of this quake now some 12 hours -- almost 12 hours -- after the initial quake. And I want to give you an idea of some of the infrastructure trouble that Tokyo is going through.


LAH: Twelve hours after the quake, traffic remains at a standstill. It is very, very difficult to travel through Tokyo. At 2:00 a.m., people are still trying to get home.

This is a local road that I'm on. The highways here are elevated up above, and I'm going to tilt -- I apologize for the picture here, the picture quality.

Very difficult to see, but what you are looking at up there, that is an elevated highway. The highways here are elevated, and so the concern is, is if you have a bunch of people up above these local roads, and then there is an aftershock, then those roads could then collapse on the roads below, and you create further problems.

So, because the highways are shutdown, the roads -- the local roads are clogged. The train systems are still not online, and that's what people rely on to get in and out of this city.

Many people, the millions of people who work in downtown Tokyo, many of them live an hour outside of the city. They are still trying to get home at 2:00 in the morning, or they have simply -- and have to spend the night in the subway station.

I'm going to actually pop back into the car, because maybe we are moving a little bit. We have gone about six miles. We have gone six miles in about five or six hours, so it's very, very slow-going and it's going to take a long time for us to get up there.

And we're trying to get up to Sendai, and this gives you just a small glimpse of some of the challenges that they're going to face, that the rescue crews are going to face, just trying to get up to that region.

Now, what they are doing to try to get up there, they're using more flexible modes of transportation like helicopters. And so it is not though until the morning that we're really going to understand what the devastation is like in northern Tokyo.


MALVEAUX: Kyung Lah, thank you so much. Obviously, she is moving very slowly through the traffic, a very good demonstration of what it is like. And she's 230 miles away from where the earthquake actually struck, but it is having effects and impacting people throughout the country.

Really a monstrous earthquake and, as we saw, devastating tsunami that followed.

We are going to have more after this break on this breaking news story. And clearly, not just looking at Japan, but also the coast of Hawaii, and the West Coast, where there are tsunami warnings.


MALVEAUX: Want to go to Cham Dallas, a disaster management professor out of the University of Georgia who joins us on the phone from Athens, Georgia.

Professor, I know that you have worked with Japanese emergency and nuclear officials there. And perhaps you can give us some perspective of what we are looking at, a report that we just got.

This is from Kyodo News saying that this nuclear plant -- this is the Fukushima nuclear plant -- that the radiation level is rising there. And we have gotten some reports as well that there have been some problems with the cooling components, cooling functions of some of these nuclear plants.

What does that mean? Is there a dangerous situation that is developing here? What is the significance of that news?

CHAM DALLAS, DISASTER MANAGEMENT PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA: Well, Suzanne, the Japanese are very safety-conscious with their nuclear reactor programs, and they're very conscious of the risks that they have from earthquakes. As a matter of fact, they are so focused on it, I would say it's affected everything they do, their planning, everything.

And this direct answer to your question is that it's not surprising that they would see some rise in radiation levels. We don't have the details on that yet.

When they shutdown reactors, they can -- it takes a long time for them to go down. They are going to be hot, both thermally hot like heat hot, and radioactive hot for some time.

It does not necessarily mean that radioactivity has gotten out of the reactor yet, anyway. Sometimes it's necessary in this process to release small amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere in order to control heat and steam reaction. It doesn't mean that anything has violated their safety protocol yet. That is not indicated yet. The Japanese have even taken to evacuation planning, which is a pretty significant step for them to take and one they have not taken before.

MALVEAUX: Now, we actually had a chance to speak to a wife whose husband is working at one of the plants, and she described the situation, the scenario, where the roof was caving in, glass was breaking all around him, and that he had to escape very quickly.

When you hear stories like that, does it concern you at all that the building, the structure itself, it is not sound? Or does that sound like it is something that's already planned out for, a contingency, that you could have that kind of damage and, still, the nuclear facility would be intact, that you would not have a nuclear accident?

DALLAS: Well, I would say, if I hear a story like that coming out of a nuclear reactor facility anywhere, that is of great concern to me. You know, any time you have those kind of structural damage issues.

The good news on that is that the Japanese have planned for this. They have incorporated earthquake design into their reactor construction more than anybody in the world. The Japanese nuclear safety record has been pretty good.

I spent 10 years at Chernobyl, where the Soviet Union and the Ukrainians, the Russians had a meltdown, and things went very badly for them. So I have seen the other side of that equation, when things don't go well.

That's not a good report to hear -- we have to have it verified, of course, but it's not a good report to hear that they have that kind of destruction on the inside. The good news is they have planned for it.

MALVEAUX: All right. Professor Dallas, we appreciate your perspective.

We want to take a quick break, and we'll be leading into a presidential news conference at the White House momentarily.


MALVEAUX: President Obama, he's about to meet with reporters at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in just a few minutes. Of course, we are keeping a close eye on that. We expect him to begin the news conference by talking about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the threat to the United States now.

Well, joining us leading up to the president, our CNN's Wolf Blitzer. He is out of Washington. And our chief business correspondent, Ali Velshi, he's going to be joining us soon. And CNN's Christine Romans in New York.

Wolf, I want to start off with you, because, obviously, the president, he's put out some statements. He's already offered assistance to Japan. He's reached out to the leadership, instructed FEMA, be ready to help those in need here in this country. But every president has a moment when he's got these disasters and he's got to prove, look, I'm on this, I get it, I'm on top of it.

What do we need to hear and what do we expect to hear from this president on the disaster today?

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": Well, I suspect, Suzanne, he is hearing privately from his top assistants that this is a catastrophe that is unfolding in Japan right now, a real, real disaster for the people of Japan. And all these early numbers about casualties, people who have been killed, injured, missing, it's very, very early. And I suspect once it's daylight there, and people get a real sense of what's going on, the horrible nature of what has happened in Japan, first with the earthquake, the worst probable earthquake in 100 years in Japan, 8.9 magnitude, and then this enormous tsunami which has really destroyed whole areas of the coastal region of Japan, once these numbers start coming in, the global magnitude of this crisis will emerge, and that's what I'm sure the president is being told right now.

I'm sure he will underline that and he'll make the point that the United States is ready to do whatever it can to provide assistance. And at some, Suzanne -- and all of our viewers are familiar with the aftermath of an earthquake and a tsunami -- there will be people caught in the rubble in buildings that collapsed, and they're going to have to rescue these people, assuming they are obviously still alive.

So this work is only just beginning. The United States and Japan are close allies. The president will make it clear to the entire world right now that the U.S. will do whatever it can to help the people of Japan.

MALVEAUX: And Christine, I want to go to you next here.

The administration had billed this as something that the president was going to talk about the first 10 minutes or so, about conquering these rising oil prices. He's really gotten hit hard by some Republicans who are now suggesting that he should tap into the oil reserves.

The focus has changed a bit, it's shifted a bit, but he is still going to talk about that, because there are a lot of Americans who look at the situation and are very, very concerned because of what has happened in the Middle East, what's happening at the gas pump.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Right. And you look at gas prices, they're up 37 cents over the past just couple of weeks, $3.54 a gallon.

This is something that is a tax on American consumers, quite frankly. It's money right out of their pocket. So it's a pocketbook issue that the president can talk about that literally every American cares about. Ironically, he is talking about rising oil prices. Oil prices have come down a little bit and actually fell below $100 a barrel earlier today because of uncertainty and this idea that Japan is the world's third largest economy, and now the great demand it has for oil products will be diminished, at least in the very near term, of course. So you have seen oil prices come back a little bit.

But what can the president do? I mean, he can talk about maybe a reprieve of the federal gas tax which is 44 cents. I mean, it's something that -- he was shy about that on the campaign trail, quite actually, when other people had been calling for it.

He could tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but that's something -- you really don't know what that would do to oil prices.

MALVEAUX: Right, right.

ROMANS: That might trigger -- signal that maybe people would be so afraid of what is happening in the oil markets that prices could actually go up.

MALVEAUX: OK. I want to bring in Ali, because we are getting a two-minute warning that the president is going to start.

But weigh in on this if you would.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Touching the strategic reserve a bad idea. That is meant for when there is a problem getting oil into the refineries in the Gulf coast. We have no problem getting oil. It's expensive because we use a lot of it because China has been using more. Between India -- because India is using more.

As Christine says, oil has gone down a little this morning because Japan, which is the world's third largest economy, will obviously be using a little less as it ramps back up.

There is very little if anything that the president can say that is going to be meaningful about energy. America is not the driving force on energy costs anymore. Le woe

MALVEAUX: We -- Wolf, I want to go back to you.

Do we -- do we even think that the president is really going to be emphasizing that today? Obviously, it is part of the agenda, but there's a lot more that's going on in the world here, the crisis, the situation in the Middle East, Libya?

BLITZER: He has got so much going on right now, it's amazing, Suzanne.

Obviously, what is happening in Japan, that is very much on his mind right now.

Libya, it's a disaster, obviously. The president has said Gadhafi must go, but he's -- he's not going anywhere, at least not now. He seems to be having the upper hand in his battle.

There are huge gas price issues that he wanted to discuss today and tell the folks out there what he is trying to do to make it better.

He has got a budget battle with Congress in the next few days. There's another deadline, if it's not resolved, there could be a government shutdown.

And then he's got the aftermath of what happened in Wisconsin that he's looking at.

So the global issues, the national security issues, the earthquake/tsunami in Japan. This guy has got so much on the plate right now. It's -- you know, you and I, Suzanne, have covered presidents over these years. It seems they're all there.