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JOHN KING, USA

First Saturday Morning Video from Japan; Scattered Damage Along U.S. Coast; Worst Quake in Japan's History; Senator Inouye's Wife Survives Quake

Aired March 11, 2011 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks, Wolf. Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world as we bring you the latest breaking news on this devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

I'm John King in Washington. Joined for the hour ahead by my CNN international colleague Kristie Lu Stout who's reporting live from Hongkong.

Kristie, as day breaks now in Asia, where as you know it is already Saturday morning, we're slowly beginning to get a better sense of the scope of the devastation and the recovery challenge, including an emergency of one of Japan's coastal nuclear power plants.

As we look at some of the new images coming into us, Japan's National Police estimate at least 184 people are dead, 530 are missing, but we are certain as we watch these new images come in that that number will climb as the waters recede.

Some government officials, in fact, quoted in Japanese media outlets predicting the death toll at a minimum will pass the 1,000 mark. There's been a little over 18 hours now. Let's take a closer look. It's a magnitude 8.9 quake recorded right here off Japan's eastern coast.

You see the town of Sendai. That was closest. Tokyo down here, the hardest hit. This flashing ring here, but vibrations all the way down throughout Japan's coastal areas right here. The images are stunning.

Take a look now as we go back to the beginning, first the vibrations of a strong earthquake, the strongest on record in Japan. Then not long after all that shaking, the breathtaking power of the waters unleashed by a 30 foot tsunami. Cars and boats, even homes tossed about like toys. Look again at these images here.

It is just striking the awesome, sobering power of the water and the wreckage and debris is just coming through the destructive forces. Only now as these waters start to recede can they get a better sense of the damage in these communities. Coastal communities on both sides of the pacific sounded tsunami warnings and alerts.

And we did see some major waves and some disruptions and damage in Hawaii and later California. Alerts remain in place to the south, to south and Latin America. Chile, for example, but so far the only significant damage is in Japan so far, where search and rescue efforts have been complicated by massive power outages and a series of strong aftershocks.

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, adding to the anxiety is word of the state of the emergency at a Japanese nuclear power plant about 170 miles north of Tokyo. The Tokyo electric power company Japan's Kyoto news agency says that radioactive substances may have seeped out of a nuclear reactor.

Radiation levels near the plant's main gate are more than eight times above normal. Meanwhile, Japan's NHK network reports that people within a six-mile radius of the plant have been ordered to evacuate.

CNN's Paula Hancocks is in Osaka, Japan, en route to the epicenter. She joins us on the phone. And, Paula, it is 18 hours after the quake, and rescue crews are still on their way. Give us an idea of the difficulty, the logistical difficulty of just getting there.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, Kristie, a number of the airports in the northern and northeastern parts are actually cut off. Sendai Airport, which is the main one in the worst hit area is under water. There are pictures of people standing on the roof unable to move, so certainly that is crippling this emergency relief effort.

There are other airports, which are just starting to open up now. Even if it's just partially opened up, and they are reserved for emergency crews and aid agencies, but those are desperate to get the people on the ground. The added issue is the fact that communications are bad.

We understand from some people in the area that mobile phones aren't working. You really need a satellite phone to be able to coordinate anything, which may be okay for some of the emergency crew, but it's certainly not okay for the vast majority because they're relying on telecommunications.

There really are extra hassles for the teams as they're trying to help those that need it, and, of course, we only have three hours of daylight. Much of the night the crews were trying to help and quite simply if it was pitch black and you don't know what's beneath you. It's very difficult to get helicopters in those conditions.

STOUT: Also the state of emergency has been declared at a nuclear facility. What is the update on that situation? HANCOCKS: Well, the trade minister of Japan said that a small radiation could occur at the Fukushima nuclear plant. That is according to the Kyoto news agency. We understand from that news agency that the radiation levels have been recorded as more than eight times the normal amount.

Now, we know that there has been the evacuation around the nuclear plant. We understand that there's at least a six-mile or ten kilometer zone where people have been evacuated. Also, the prime minister has made it his call of Japanese Prime Minister Kan in a helicopter this morning.

He went straight to that plant to see what was happening knowing that this is a very serious development. He offered to tour the rest of the area to see how bad the damage was.

STOUT: OK, Paula, thank you very much for that. Paula Hancocks joining us live from Osaka en route to the disaster zone. Let's get back to John.

KING: And Kristie, I just want to use our map to show people the location of the nuclear sites, Paula and you were just talking about. Here's the Fukushima site. There's a number of Japan, of course, heavily relying on nuclear power. It is this site here about 170 miles north of Tokyo where they are deeply concerned right now.

A couple of other facilities are reporting some problems, but officials say this is their top priority right now, and as Paula just noted, the release of some radioactive vapors, officials are saying, no big deal, but, obviously, a huge concern as this plays out.

We'll see if they can cool that reactor down in time. We're also getting some new pictures in from NHK, which has done a marvelous job covering this, and these daytime pictures we're beginning to see help us get a much better sense of the scope of the devastation and the challenge of the recovery effort.

Now, 18 hours plus after the devastating quake, and we try to discuss the challenges ahead, let's bring in CNN's Kyung Lah. She's about to travel to the epicenter of the quake also.

Kyung, let's start with the public anxiety. There has to be enormous anxiety anyway. The record quake, the most devastating quake in Japan's history, and then on top of that some concerns about this nuclear episode. What's the sense among the people and the sense of the transparency and communication from the government?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, let's talk about what exactly I'm seeing. I'm 200 kilometers outside of where the tsunami hit. That Sendai region. I can tell you that now it's starting to be quite slow going. Roads are cracked. You can start to see buildings have cracks. Buildings are compromised. There is no gas.

Again, no power, very little water. We are seeing people leaving that region either trying to get supplies or simply getting out of there because those areas are damaged. What we're seeing in the various convenience stops or stores are long lines of people, very few supplies on the shelves.

We've tried to buy a little bit of food here and there, very little supplies. So what we're seeing even this far out, even 200 kilometers out is people are trying to move further and further out just to get the vital supplies they need for their families.

As far as what the sense that you're asking how people are feeling, what I'm gathering is that, you know, people are being relatively calm. No one is speeding here on the highway. People are being quite polite in the stores.

There's no pushing or shoving, but there's certainly an elevated concern. There is a low grade anxiety because there have been aftershocks, and we are getting closer and closer to an area that's heavily damaged.

KING: And, Kyung, as you get closer and closer to the epicenter where not only the quake hit the hardest, but where the tsunami hit the hardest, you mentioned the situation in the stores and the residents and citizens you're encountering.

Do you see as you make your way there, any evidence of a big response? Are you seeing helicopters? Are you seeing emergency response teams? Are you seeing a response from the government and the disaster relief people of the proportion that you believe based on what you are seeing so far is going to be necessary?

LAH: I think I'm too far out to make a judgment call. We're not seeing anybody, but, again, we are 200 kilometers out. The areas that are hit here, they are damaged, but they're not severely damaged. It's something you see, you know, in a mild quake.

You know, we're want seeing, you know, huge gashes in the roads or massive injuries. That's the immediate emergency further in, so my assumption -- and I'm not there yet, but my assumption is that the authorities must be trying to concentrate the immediate rescue for the hardest hit areas.

KING: Kyung Lah is on her way. We'll stay in touch throughout the hour and the hours ahead as she gets closer and closer to the epicenter not only of where this quake hit the hardest, but, again, with the powerful waves hitting the hardest. Kyung and crew, please stay safe. We'll stay in touch as you move forward.

Joining us now is a freelance reporter Lucy Craft. She was in Tokyo in the Diet building, the parliament building when the earthquake hit. More importantly, her son is a student at a high school near the epicenter. She joins us now on the phone from Tokyo. Lucy, we're 18 hours plus later, and have you still been unable to get in touch with your son?

LUCY CRAFT, FREELANCE REPORTER, TOKYO (via telephone): Yes, unfortunately. The phone lines are still down. My son, of course, has his cell phone, and I haven't been able to get to him by cell phone. I haven't been able to get to anybody at his school.

I have his teacher's phone number. She doesn't answer. It's not that she doesn't answer. It's just the phones are not working. It's very upsetting situation as can you imagine.

KING: Is there any information coming from the government? Is there any place you have been able to find any information at all? You just heard our correspondent making her way up there. She's seeing damage still 200 kilometers from there. The silence has to have you in a bit of a state.

CRAFT: Well, you know, the suspense is killing me, as they say. I just got on the phone to the police station in part of Sendai City, which is where my son's school is. Since the quake hit in 3:00 in the afternoon, he probably was still at school, and I just talked to the police there, and they said that they hadn't had any reports of students gone missing or been hurt or anything worse than that. They assumed that he had been taken refuge at his school, so I'm hoping that's where he is.

KING: Could they give you any information at all? You mentioned his school. Have you been there? Is it several stories high? If the waves came through -- we heard inland there have been waves as high as 10 or 12 feet.

Is it a large enough school and if they had warning and that's the key question in the first areas hit, if they had warning and got upstairs, would that be enough?

CRAFT: The school was not near the coast, which is one saving grace. It was quite close to Sendai City, which escaped relatively unscathed from what I can gather so far. So the building itself, unfortunately, is an old building, but I'm sure they're used to this kind of thing. We have so many earthquakes here. I'm just hoping and praying for the best.

KING: We will hope and pray with you, and we hope you'll stay in touch with us as you get more information. Tell me now about your experience in Tokyo. You're a reporter there, and I understand you are at the parliament building, the DIET it's called. Japan gets earthquakes. You are familiar with earthquakes, but this one felt different?

CRAFT: Yes, I mean, normally when earthquakes hit in Japan, you just wake up and turnover and go back to sleep or if you are awake already, you kind of look up and say, an earthquake and go back to what you are doing, and that's what we did during our interview.

And then all of a sudden the DIET member I was talking to said, wait a minute, this is not an ordinary earthquake. We tried to get up and walk around her office, and we couldn't because the shocks were so severe and then we noticed her belongings kind of flying around the room.

Things were falling off the shelves and what not, and so we evacuated the building like everyone else was doing, and then I wanted to get back on the train and go back to my office, and the trains were stopped. Then I came upstairs, and the traffic wasn't moving properly.

Things were starting to seem not like what we're used to, and I ended up walking back to my office, and I felt strange -- it was one of the strangest scenes I have ever seen after many years of living in Tokyo, which is the middle of the day offices, restaurants, shops, completely emptied out.

People mulling around the streets. A lot of them wearing white helmets, which you may have seen which are worn during disaster drills. Only this wasn't a drill.

KING: Not a drill at all. Lucy, help us understand, especially from the perspective if you remember, back to the Southeast Asia tsunami several years back. One of the early questions, you know, were we getting information right away?

Were the people who needed help getting the help right away? Maybe it's Hurricane Katrina for many people in the United States and their perspective, and the response of the city or the state or the federal government.

From your perspective, as a journalist and as someone who has lived in the region, in terms of the communication, the reaction of the government and the spread of information in Japan, give us your sense of how that's going so far.

CRAFT: There isn't any country in the world that spends as much money, devotes as much energy to disaster prevention as Japan. They spend a huge amount of money, tens of billions of dollars they spend on disaster prevention because they have just one natural disaster after another.

And it's -- half the people are living on land that is either at sea level or below sea level, so there's a great public emphasis and interest on investing in this. Would you never get a mandate for this level of public investment and disaster infrastructure like you have here.

If the Japanese can't get it right, then one has to not have very much hope. They have sensors planted, you know, hundreds of sensors that are planted to pick up early warnings. This particular quake wasn't picked up early for various reasons, which are just coming to light, but normally you do get a heads-up before a major earthquake is coming.

Tsunami information is usually quite good. It's broadcast to you on TV. All the TV stations are constantly running tsunami warnings, earthquake warnings as soon as the information is available, which is very soon.

And then if you live on the countryside, you're often supplied with a wireless radio that has a connection between you and the local office, the local disaster prevention office. I mean, there's all kinds of things they have. They have disaster prevention drills in schools and offices and the disaster prevention day. It's a really big undertaking here.

KING: Lucy Craft, we appreciate your helping us not only report this story, but get your eyewitness account as well. Especially, especially, such a great, thoughtful presentation there at a time when you are under great personal stress trying to wonder about the whereabouts and the health of your son.

Please keep in touch with us and know you are in our thoughts and prayers, and we hope you get that phone call from him very soon. Please take care.

CRAFT: Thank you.

KING: Thank you. Thank you so much for being with us.

And Lucy was just talking about the warning system. I want to show you a little bit about this. You see the Pacific here. Indonesia down here with the tsunami hit several years back. I want to show you a little bit. There's a network underneath. These purple dots these are networks on land or here on the ocean floor, seismic detectors.

So they detect earthquake activity and then at the sea level there are a whole host of others. This is the Japanese system here. These pinkish dots up here, these are actually by the United States out here in cooperation with other partners and other nations as well.

And what you have here is on the ocean floor, they detect seismic activity or on land, you see them in Australia. You see them across Asia here and then the United State. These detect seismic activity, and then all these buoys out of see, they detect the movements of the waves and they send signals to a warning system.

So when the earthquake hits, a tsunami warning goes immediately in every direction. More on this and how this works and sometimes how it doesn't work, but in this case it appears to have worked quite well as we continue. When we come back, the United States senator's wife traveling in Japan. She's in Tokyo. Her eyewitness account next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Look at these pictures. Saturday morning now in Japan, a little more than 18 hours after a devastating earthquake followed by a punishing tsunami. If you look at these pictures here, people trapped on the roof.

That's multi-story building, and they are up on the roof trying to get help. If you look around that building, you can see the debris caused by the quake and the tsunami that followed. At one point we are told that everything, everything but the roof, was under water as the tsunami came through.

Among those in Japan is the wife of U.S. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. She was traveling in Tokyo when the earthquake hit and Irene Hirano joins us on the phone right now.

Mrs. Hirano Inouye, thank you so much for your time. Just take me back - you have traveled to Japan many times on business and on community and civic trips. What did it feel like and how did you first know this was different, this was not just another quake in Tokyo?

IRENE HIRANO, WIFE OF SENATOR DANIEL INOUYE (via telephone): Well, I have been here in Tokyo in my capacity of president of the U.S.-Japan Council, and I brought a large delegation of Japanese-American leaders. We were in a hotel. I was in a hotel coming down an escalator when I began to feel the escalator and the building moving.

I got outside. I was with another person who lives here in Japan, and he said I have never felt an earthquake like this. I realized it was not the normal -- normal occurrence, so we stood by the side of the building and you could feel the building continued to shake.

I'm originally from Southern California, so I have been in earthquakes, and it lasted quite a long time. I think what has happened since then have been the aftershocks. As recently as a few minutes ago. We are continuing to feel the aftershocks.

KING: And as you feel the aftershocks now, as someone who has this experience, both in the United States and from your trips there, help me get a sense of, number one, were others panicking or citizens of Tokyo because they're used to being relatively calm, and in terms of the quality and quantity of information you are getting from the government through news reports, how comfortable are you with the level of that?

HIRANO: Well, I think when the quake hit, there were many people who went outside of the building. I think initially people were very calm, and certainly Japan has very high level technology and is prepared to deal with earthquakes.

And so their buildings are such that they've been built to withstand that type of tremor, but no one expected it to be the magnitude that it was. I think as time went on and people saw that the trains were shut down and people were unable to get back home, many people walked back home, the impact of the severity of the quake began to hit.

I think for younger people, there were many younger people out on the streets of Tokyo. They were obviously trying to get home as well. There have been, I think, very good coverage. We've been getting a lot of reports both from the U.S. embassy in Tokyo as well as from the government.

I was actually scheduled to meet Prime Minister Kan at 6:00 yesterday, and, obviously, that now has changed, but I think that certainly as a country that Japan is as well prepared as any other in the world to handle these kinds of disasters.

We're watching CNN, and, fortunately, you've had great coverage, so for those of us that are Americans in Japan and I'm sure as your viewers are watching throughout the world, that we've been able to get up-to-date information.

I think we are all shocked to see the level of photographs that -- and the film that you have been providing through NHK, but the coverage that we've had from the time of quake hit --

STOUT: OK. Now, joining us now by phone from Tokyo is Bill, a dean of the Denman College University, and he was visiting Japan when the quake hit. Welcome to CNN, and walk us through that moment yesterday when the quake hit. Where were you? What were you experiencing?

DR. WILLIAM M. TSUTSUI, DEAN, SOUTHERN METHODIST UNIVERSITY (via telephone): I was in a bus with other members of the Japanese- American leadership delegation. We had just pulled up outside a major hotel in central Tokyo when the rumbling began.

The next thing I knew there were crowds of people running out of the hotel, and when you looked up at the skyscrapers, they were swaying like trees in the breeze. It was a terrifying moment.

STOUT: Have you experienced earthquakes before in Japan, and how does it compare?

TSUTSUI: I have lived in Japan. I have traveled to Japan extensively. Most Japanese earthquakes are like being rocked in a cradle. They're actually sort of relaxing. This was not relaxing at all. This was very violent and very long.

STOUT: Now it is now morning in Japan. Roughly 9:30 a.m. in the morning. Of course, the epicenter of this disaster is in the northeast in Sendai, but they're in the capital city in Tokyo are you seeing any clear evidence of damage, destruction from the earthquake?

TSUTSUI: I'll tell you. Right now I'm on the way to the Narita Airport. We've just crossed over from Tokyo metropolitan area into Chiba Prefecture, and I'm seeing the first damage that I have encountered.

The road is buckled. There's water coming up through the pavement, and it's contributing to the horrible traffic jam. There are just endless lines of cars on every side street headed from the city out to the airport.

STOUT: There's a state of emergency in place at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which I understand is 150 miles north of Tokyo. Now, evacuations are underway, but only within a couple miles radius there at the plant. Are citizens in Tokyo on edge on the back of this news?

TSUTSUI: Well, I'll tell you, the streets are strangely quiet here. There are few people out on their bicycles. I have seen a family or two out for a walk, but it's generally much more quiet than you would expect it to be on a Saturday morning.

I think a lot of people are at home glued to their TV sets trying to get the latest information. I think there's a lot of concern here.

STOUT: All right, Bill Tsutsui of Southern Methodist University. Eyewitness there at the scene there live in Tokyo. Thank you very much, indeed. Let's head back to John.

KING: Kristie, you mentioned the concerns about that nuclear facility. Let's bring in Howard Shaffer of the American Nuclear Society. He's a former Navy nuclear submarine engineer and has worked at nuclear plants in Vermont and Taiwan.

Mr. Shaffer, thank you so much for joining us. I'm just showing our viewers. I want to show them where some of these nuclear sites are. Obviously, Japan is heavily reliant on nuclear power, but it is this site here, the Fukushima site, about 170 miles north of Tokyo we are told is the problem.

From what you have heard, sir, officials say they've had a problem cooling the reactor. They've lost power. Then they were on the back- up battery system. Then they say 1,000 times the normal radioactivity levels around that plant, but they say the public should not be concerned. Do you buy that?

HOWARD SHAFFER, AMERICAN NUCLEAR SOCIETY (via telephone): Yes, I do from the IAEA. They're doing -- it was normal for this scenario. It might raise the level of the control room, but the level of the control room normally than they might have had at home.

So from everything I have seen and heard it sounds like Japanese officials are right on top of it. They've had a very serious situation there with the loss of thick electrical power due to the tsunami.

KING: And so they do this initial seepage, which you say should be fine. What's the next challenge in the sense of if they still don't have power restored there, how much time do they have before they face another dramatic challenge?

SHAFFER: From what I saw they had brought portable power in, so they'll continue in this vein until they get more power in. Without any power at all, the next challenge wouldn't come for a day or two anyway.

KING: Help the layman who doesn't understand how this works. When there's an earthquake, there's a trigger. They're automatically shut down. Then if you lose power, describe the cooling challenge essentially and the fact of how hot the core would be and what -- why it's so important to cool it down.

SHAFFER: The reactor core when the chain reaction stops, the pieces that are split atom are radioactive and they give off their radioactivity that generates heat. It's like microwaving the things around, it you might say. That keeps increasing over time, and it has to be removed.

Otherwise, it had heat up and damage and could even melt down the fuel coil. As you recall, we ran that experiment at three-mile island in 1979. It will partially melt the core. It's terrible for the reactor, but not to the public because the reactor with the containment will keep those products missed the container.

KING: And in a place that is a, so reliant on nuclear power, but then also, b, so susceptible to earthquakes, tell us how a nuclear facility here might be built differently -- I assume very differently in some ways -- than a nuclear facility in the United States.

SHAFFER: From my understanding, they look very similar, but the seismic strength is much greater. Power plants all over the world are tailored to their extreme conditions in their particular location, and the Japanese, of course, have a normally higher earthquake than we design for in this country.

KING: We appreciate your insights and your expertise on this challenge for the Japanese government and the Japanese people tonight. We hope we can keep in touch with you as this plays out.

When we come back, the science behind tsunamis. Why earthquakes cause them and how we've learned to measure and predict them? But first, take a look. More dramatic pictures from early Saturday some 18 hours after the earthquake hit, fires still burning in some ruined cities.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: This Saturday 9:30 in the morning, check out these images along Japan's mort eastern coast. It used to be a residential area. Just few signs of life, just foundations. The wooden homes that sat above them, washed away by the powerful tsunami that followed the earthquake 18.5 hours ago.

With us now to explain the science of tsunamis, from St. Louis, Doug Weans, the chairman of Washington University Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, also Stephan Grilli, professor at the University of Rhode Island's Department of Ocean Engineering.

Let me start with you first, Mr. Wiens. As you have watched this play out, 18 hours ago, a little more than that is when this all happened, just your thought on what you have seen as you characterize this, put this into context. Many people will remember the tsunami of the southeast Asia tsunami from several years ago. How does this one fit?

DOUGH WIENS, EARTH AND SCIENCE CHAIRMAN, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Well, it's a tremendous disaster because it's happening right next to a very highly populated area, and we've recently gotten an temperature of the magnitude of the earthquake and the most reliable estimates now say 9.1. So this is one of the four largest earthquakes that we've ever recorded with the seismograph.

Go ahead, Kristie.

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Sorry about that. Stephan Grilli, this is Kristie in Hong Kong. This was a shallow earthquake. When it struck, it was just 24 kilometers deep in the water. Is it a general rule that the more shallow the quake is and if it happens in water, the more devastating the resulting tsunami will be?

PROF. STEPHAN GRILLI, UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND: Yes, of course. The closer to the sea floor, the more shaking you will have and the more water motion above the sea floor.

KING: And, gentlemen, let me ask Mr. Wiens first. I'm going to show an animation. This is the tsunami. The earthquake hits. It first hits Japan, and then you watch as it plays out. This is eight hours later, hours later. It begins to hit the pacific coast over here, the United States, ten hours, 11 hours making its way down towards California.

As it plays out here, it seems to be -- there were some initial concerns about the power when it reached this way, but it seems to be now that we could say with certainty, can we not, that the threat was over here and that, yes, we need to watch it here, but there's no major damage expected, correct?

WIENS: I think since it's been already so many hours since the earthquake, the energy in the waves dies out as it spreads out. So I believe that the danger is really over. STOUT: Just to follow-up on that, more aftershocks have been taking place since the initial 8.9 magnitude earthquake that struck yesterday about 2:26 local time. Given so many number of aftershocks, should there be more ahead, and could there be one of the same level of the magnitude that we saw yesterday?

WIENS: Well, we can never say for sure. I mean, sometimes an aftershock could be essentially the sag same magnitude as the same shock, so you have a double, but in most cases the aftershocks are at least a magnitude or two below the main shock in approximate magnitude.

So I think that we could have a damaging aftershock, but they will probably not be large enough to produce a significant tsunami, at least at a great distance from Japan.

KING: And let me ask you both. I'm showing our viewers here a chart here. This is fault lines around the area, and this is essentially where this happened. This is what they call the "ring of fire" right up in here.

Mr. Wiens, to you first, what is the special significance of where, just where this happened and sort of the greater the threat where we are in the world here?

WIENS: Well, the reason that there are so many earthquakes there is because the Pacific plate is moving down beneath Japan, and when it moves down beneath Japan, you get these very large earthquakes as we do in other places in the ring of fire like Alaska and Chile.

What's significant about the location is it happened in such a populated area, so that means that the devastation, you know, that you can have on the population is very large, and, you know, seems to be on the -- a comparable earthquake in Japan's history was the 1923 Canto earthquake was a very significant event.

KING: We continue to show our viewers. Excuse me for interrupting. I want to tell our viewers we're seeing live pictures across the coast of Japan. These are from NHK. We're trying to get a better assessment of the damage now that they can see. You can tell from those pictures the waters are beginning to recede, but still some water issues there.

Professor Grilli, this is a question we got a lot today in emails and twitter and the like. When you see this ring of the fault lines here, people sometimes ask, you know, is there any relation? We just had a quake down here in the Christchurch, New Zealand area not that long ago. Obviously, it's a considerable distance, but it's in this fault line. Is this just the risk you pay for being along these fault lines out here?

GRILLI: I'm not really a seismologist, but I would think that the connection would be very slim as you move very far away from the trench. But on the same trench, what happened today could put more stresses on some other parts of the trench that haven't moved yet. And so this remains to be seen and studied, but it could be that in the next near future, I wouldn't want to venture a forecast, but we could see another part of this particular trench that would move as a result of additional stresses that have been put on that part of the trench, but not for another distant part of the range.

KING: I showed some of this to our viewers earlier. I want to show them again and ask you gentlemen if we are in the right place or if more needs to be done. I'm showing the warning system.

First, the seismic places that are on land and on the ocean floor, and then you bring in the sea level network, largely buoys around the world and different governments and different organizations control these, which is why they are different colors.

But Mr. Wiens, to you first, I assume Japan has the best early warning system in the world if you see the network up in here. Is this system as good as it can be, or does it need to be updated?

WIENS: Well, they have an excellent system, and recently they have even been augmenting their system on land with sensors under the ocean. I imagine there are ways to make it better, but it certainly is an excellent system, and I'm sure it saved many, many lives today by warnings that were put out when the earthquake first happened because there was probably ten or 15 minutes where they could warn people about the tsunami coming in.

KING: Professor Grilli, let me close with this question. Obviously, we're still trying to assess the damage, the devastation, and what's particularly important, the loss of life. What is your biggest question as someone who studies these things? As you watch this go forward in the days and weeks ahead, what is your biggest question at this moment that you would like to answer?

GRILLI: Well, I think we just heard about warning. What we need to do is increase the level of warning, and that means looking at a lot of scenarios and also being ready to redesign as soon as possible and put in those scenarios -- by scenario I mean computer models that can quickly make an assessment and issue a prediction.

Today despite this kind of tragedy, I think the warning system showed a great success in warning a lot of areas ahead of time and saving people from danger and saving a lot of lives. I think, unfortunately, for the highly populated area very close to the epicenter, the warning was very short, and we've heard about the death toll, and that is a tragedy for Japan.

KING: Stephan Grilli from the University of Rhode Island, Doug Wiens from Washington University, thank you both for your expertise and insights on short notice. We much appreciate it tonight.

GRILLI: My pleasure.

WIENS: Thank you.

KING: Thank you both. We're going to take a quick break, and when we come back, Kristie will rejoin us, and also President Obama's very personal reaction to it is earthquake in Japan. But first, again, more new pictures from Saturday morning, new cars that had been lined up for export. First the tsunami stacked them on top of one another, now a fire burning through the pile.

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KING: Welcome back. If you're just joining us, here's the latest news you need to know right now.

President Obama was awake at about 4:00 this morning and told about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. He immediately ordering U.S. military and humanitarian aid.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our thoughts and our prayers are with the people of Japan. This is a potentially catastrophic disaster, and the images of the destruction and flooding you coming out of Japan are simply heart breaking.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Also today the president repeated all options remain on the table in the response to the crisis in Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's military once again pounded key oil town of Ras Lanuf which had been in rebel hands.

Today Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords reported she did a fist pump when her breathing tube was removed, and she can now walk and speak in complete sentences. They say she has access to her childhood memories, but doesn't remember January's shooting.

When we come back, the latest from Japan, including dramatic images we're getting in this morning. A look at some of these right here. NHK reports this school was an evacuation center. As you can see, SOS.

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KING: I'm John king in Washington. Welcome back to our special coverage of the Japanese earthquake and response. Just moment ago rescue crews dropped down to the roof from this helicopter. They've brought somebody up on the winch. You see them swinging on the helicopter as Japan begins a dramatic search and rescue operation in areas devastated by this hurricane. And 8.9 was the official magnitude. A scientist told us he saw a readjustment up to 9.1. We watch this play out, the quake and tsunami impact.

As you see, search and rescue operations, this is critical now. About 10:00 in the morning in Japan, the optimum time to get a better assessment. As we watch helicopters play out, Kristie is with me from Hong Kong. Kristie, it is encouraging to begin to see the search and rescue operations. The question we can't answer yet, though, what is the size. What is the scope of the challenge facing not only the Japanese authorities but all the international help now coming their way?

STOUT: It is very encouraging to see live pictures of the rescue operation in Sendai, the area in northeastern Japan most affected by the earthquake and resulting tsunami. This is already about 18 hours after the initial 8.9-magnitude quake struck, and already we're looking at live pictures, confirmation that help is there on the scene, but perhaps not soon enough.

Now let's go to our Kyung Lah, traveling en route to the epicenter of the earthquake from Tokyo. And on the road, what are you seeing?

KYUNG LAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What we're seeing as we get closer and closer is that you can see the cracks in the houses. Some of the roofs have cracked off the houses. We've seen some roadways that have been cracked, as well.

But what we've seen so far is very minor damage, especially if you look at some of these television images that are coming out of the Sendai region. That's really what we're aiming for. That's where we've seen the bulk of the devastation. And where we're seeing people where we are about 100 miles -- trying to completely leave the area or getting supplies and trying to get back to their families.

STOUT: OK. And I want to get an idea of the supplies that you have in your car with you as you go to Sendai. One can only imagine it's an apocalyptic disaster zone on par with what we've seen in the aftermath of the 2004 south Asian tsunami. So what are you packing with have with you?

LAH: In a situation like this you've got to be a mobile crew and able to sustain yourself. So we have gasoline, we have water, we have snacks that won't spoil very easily. We have power supply, and, you know, our television gear. That's about it. That's all we can fit in the car. We're packed to the gills.

We're actually prepared for this. But many of the families up there who were not expecting this to happen, because even as prepared, you know this region, you know how Japan prepares for this. They practice. Even given that, you know, you cannot be prepared for this type of devastation.

When speaking to a news colleague from the area, he says when you look at the agriculture that's been swallowed up by the wall of mud and debris, it was something that was unimaginable six miles in from the shore to have that come ashore and then suck right out. So that's something that even if you practice for it, even if you hear about it from the time you were a child, it's something you simply cannot prepare for.

STOUT: Kyung Lah en route to Sendai. Let's go back to John.

KING: As Kyung makes her way, the big challenge is finding out not only how many people need help but how much help does the Japanese government need. And we heard President Obama earlier saying any help, any help that the Japanese government needs he will send.

We do know military assets the United States has in the region have already been put at their disposal. And we had a correspondent in Washington, D.C., to see a Fairfax, Virginia, rescue operation. They are about to make the trip over.

I remember seeing them after the tsunami several years ago. This is an experienced group that travels around the world when there are disasters like this and people need help. Now, they are part of a team being sent by the U.S. agency for international development. And a short time ago I talked to Mark Bartolini, director of their office of technical assistance, about the challenge ahead.

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MARK BARTOLINI, DIR. USAID, FOREIGN DISASTER ASSISTANCE: These urban search and rescue teams have the capability of doing heavy, extractive activities as well as for look at buildings for their safety. We also have a water component, a swift water rescue component to these teams because we know that following the earthquake, the tsunami trapped many people. And we'll have eight boats as well as experts in water traction arriving with these teams. And 150 people all together are en route right now with these two teams.

KING: Obviously you'll get a better sense from your counterparts in Japan over the next 24 to 48 hours as they get a better sense. As you watch the pictures yourself, so you try to make some decisions based on what you can see before you get better information, what is your sense as you've watched the pictures over the past day?

BARTOLINI: Well, we know that the loss of life is significant. We're -- the numbers are not firm right now. They never are this early in a crisis. We're hearing between 400 and 1,000. Undoubtedly those will unfortunately go up. We know the types of equipment that we need to have in the field immediately to save lives, and that's what we're focusing on.

Fortunately, Japan is obviously a well-developed country, and I think they're going to be able to handle many of the longer term needs much better than most crises we face around the world. Of course, we'll stand ready to provide them with what any assistance they require, John.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That's Mark Bartolini from the U.S. agency for international development a short time ago.

And, Kristie, I know from your experience covering the tsunami several years ago, it is remarkable, when you see a government, a country in need not only from the United States but around the world, I remember teams there when I there was from Australia, New Zealand. It's remarkable the outpouring that comes in.

And certainly we hope, we hope that Japan's challenge is nowhere on the scope of the challenge in southeast Asia a few years back. But it is heartwarming to see this play out.

STOUT: We definitely hope so. And one thing in particular I wanted to note is unlike the 2004 tsunami, we were able to watch that tsunami hit Sunday live in our screens. The aerial footage was seen in newsrooms, in living rooms, hotel rooms across the world, one hour after the earthquake struck, roughly around 3:30 p.m. local time yesterday as we saw this torrent of water just hit Sendai and push through it everything out of its way. John King, back to you.

KING: And one of the things we're most proud of at CNN is our global reach. When you have global international challenges like this, Kristie has to get ready for the next hour on CNN International. I'm going to thank her for joining me and helping out this hour. It is wonderful to not only have teams on the ground, we have them in Libya, across the northeast, Asia, Japan. Kristie, we'll see you soon, take care.

When we come back, a final thought before we end the hour on the communication and value, the value of high technology in trying to find the missing.

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KING: Watching the powerful tsunami waters today in Japan reminded me of the tsunami we were talking about in 2004. I want to show you one big difference. I have old photos of those days. If you look here, the saddest part of the Southeast Asia tsunami, people were posting notices anywhere, on telephone poles, on public billboards, trying desperately to get help about missing relatives.

It breaks your heart. A young girl from Sweden here, instantly, almost instantly let's show what popped up on the internet in Japan, instantly we tried to get the image up here. We're having a hard time getting it. Websites up saying give us information on people who are missing, we will give you information on people we have found, technology helping find the missing in Japan. We wish them the best.

CNN's continuing coverage continues of this disaster right now. Thanks for joining us.