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PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT

Coverage of the Japan Earthquake and Related Tsunamis

Aired March 11, 2011 - 21:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RYAN MCDONALD, SURVIVED JAPANESE EARTHQUAKE: Oh, my god. The building is going to fall.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

PIERS MORGAN, HOST: Tonight, apocalypse Japan. One of the biggest earthquakes in modern history. Miles of devastation.

Spectacular eyewitness accounts.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It just blew up.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: What is the fallout from damaged nuclear reactors? And tsunami, nature's most incredible force.

I'll talk with one man who's seen it all close up and lived to tell the story.

Tonight, are natural disasters on the rise? What if it happens here? Is this country prepared for the unthinkable?

Live from Los Angeles, this is a special edition of PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT.

Good evening. I'm live from a city that's suffered numerous earthquakes but never any as big as the one that struck Japan yesterday.

Japan right now, it's mid morning. And the extent of the devastation is becoming much clearer. Take a look at this video shot shortly after the earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time. This is the strongest quake to hit Japan in recorded history. One of the strongest quakes to ever hit this planet.

The death toll is likely to go well into the thousands and tens of thousands more people have been forced to flee their homes. Damaging aftershocks, up to 6.6 magnitude, are still being felt.

Meanwhile Japanese news media report the radiation may have seeped out of a nuclear reactor 160 miles north of Tokyo. Jonathan Hammill is an eyewitness to this quake. He's a French horn player for the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. During a rehearsal, the room began to shake and then all hell broke loose.

Jonathan Hammill joins me now live in Tokyo.

Jonathan, tell me in your own words exactly what happened to you.

JONATHAN HAMMILL, EYEWITNESS: Hi. Well, basically we were getting ready to start our dress rehearsal before our concert that evening which was canceled obviously. And yes, about 15 minutes before 3:00, half the orchestra was on stage. Some of us were backstage. I was backstage and up one flight in the dressing room.

And you know we get earthquakes a lot in Japan, you know. I've been here for 10 years, and it's not uncommon to get, you know, tremors every once in a while. And it started off pretty slow. And I just thought, you know, no biggie, it's just going to be a normal -- one of the usual ones.

And then, you know, after a few seconds, it just got bigger and bigger. And the people around me, my colleagues, some of them that are -- you know, well, all of them that are Japanese that have been here forever and experienced lots of earthquakes, you could just suddenly see in their eyes that oh, no, man, this is huge.

And it just started to get bigger and bigger. And you really -- you couldn't -- I tried to get up, and it was -- this floor was shaking so much that it was hard to even stand. And it just started shaking like crazy.

There's a TV monitor that you could actually see on to the stage. And you could see just the lights swinging around. I mean flashing all over the walls. I mean, it looked like a discotheque. I mean it was just going, you know, every where and every direction. So you knew that it was -- you know, just complete mayhem on stage.

And I could hear my colleagues down the stage screaming. And everyone just got up and just started running off the stage. And I'm sitting there trying to hold on to the wall. And one of my good friends ran out of the dressing room, a girl. And you could just see the terror in her eyes. I mean -- and I probably had the same reaction. And she just latched on to my arm --

(CROSSTALK)

MORGAN: And Jonathan, let me -- let me ask you, Jonathan. I've experienced two minor quakes in Los Angeles. Both of which were utterly terrifying for the few seconds they lasted.

What seems particularly appalling about this experience that you've all had to go through there is it went on for minutes and minutes. I mean, there must have been a point where you thought you were all going to die, wasn't there?

HAMMILL: Yes. I can say two things that really stood out about this one, is that, number one, it lasted so long. I mean, the -- the major shaking -- I mean, it had to have been two minutes long which is -- I mean, really, I couldn't believe personally that the building was going to be able to withstand such shaking.

I mean it was just -- I just couldn't believe it. I really -- there's a good 30 seconds in that time where I seriously thought this is it. There's just no way this building is going to be able to hold up. But another one of the really -- the scariest thing for me was the sound.

It was just this horrible low rumbling sound that I just can't describe. I didn't know if it was the building collapsing or if it was the earth shaking, moving. You know I really didn't know. But that was just -- it was awful. It was complete -- completely horrific.

MORGAN: Utterly terrifying. Jonathan, thank you so much for joining us.

We're going to go now to CNN's Tokyo correspondent, Kyung Lah, who's on her way to ground zero in Sendai tonight and joins me by phone.

Kyung, what's the latest from where you are?

KYUNG LAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: From where we are, we're starting to continue to see more and more damage, Piers, as we get closer and closer.

And I have to be up front. We're still trying to make our way in there, we're still about 100 miles away from where I'd like to be in Sendai where we're seeing that huge devastation.

But as we get closer and closer, even this far out, what you can see are walls that have caved in or centers that have completely tipped over. We drove by a graveyard where the headstones had toppled over. So we're starting to see evidence of a quake.

What we are not seeing, though, is what those incredible pictures from Sendai are showing, and that's the devastation from the tsunami. So our sense is, is that in this region, many people experienced a very strong quake. Much stronger than what you just heard the caller from Tokyo explaining. But what the -- the (INAUDIBLE), at least we're on that right now is the tsunami. The tsunami is really what is going to be devastating this region.

MORGAN: And Kyung, obviously it's completely subjective, the death toll we're reading about, hearing about, rumors circulating from anything from 1,000 people to many, many times that.

Do you have any sense from what you're seeing, from what you're hearing about any kind of death toll?

LAH: It's really hard to imagine. I mean it's very difficult for me to wrap my head around it. But the easiest way for me to think about it is what I've heard a couple of times from residents and from colleagues who have family in that area. Where this tsunami pushed in, and it came in from six miles -- remember, it's that water and the debris. It's the debris that is fatal. So all that debris coming ashore, (INAUDIBLE) six miles in. What we've heard again and again is that it is unimaginable. It is simply not in anyone's comprehension in this region.

The people who live in this coastal area never really thought that the water could ever come ashore. When they think about a tsunami, what people here are used to is some high water coming ashore.

Japan is built with floodgates. Thos e floodgates come down and so the water may come ashore, but it doesn't really impact that many people. The idea of it coming six miles ashore and affecting this many people, that's where I kind of lead to. This is going to be a significant event where we could see many people injured.

So while it's very, very difficult for me to wrap my ahead around from the figures I'm hearing, as I talk to more people here, it is getting a little easier to understand because people simply mentally did not even think that this was possible.

MORGAN: Kyung Lah, thank you very much indeed.

Andy Clark lives in Tokyo and was trying to fly to San Francisco when the earthquake hit. He's coming to us live now from Norita Airport.

Andy, describe to us what it's like to endure this earthquake at such an appalling magnitude.

ANDY CLARK, EARTHQUAKE EYEWITNESS: Good morning. The gentleman that just described it before I will really nailed it down. It was -- it was terrifying. I lived in Japan for 20 years and we're used to earthquakes. But something of this magnitude was simply terrifying.

The earth shook with such ferocity that as the last gentleman described, I thought that things were coming to an end. And when you do have three minutes to think about it, the things that go through your head are Haiti and New Zealand, and looking at this building shaking and heaving as it did, it was simply terrifying.

MORGAN: And Andy, what is the scene now at the airport? Because we're hearing different versions of what's going on here. There are no flights, some flights getting through. Can you describe to me what is actually going on?

CLARK: Absolutely. So all flights were canceled yesterday. After the initial earthquake hit, we had a couple of very large aftershocks at which time they evacuated the entire airport. And we were marched --

MORGAN: I think we may have lost Andy there. We'll come back to Andy in a moment.

We're going to turn to Japan's ambassador to the U.S. Ichiro Fujisaki. He joins me now from Washington. Ambassador, thank you very much for joining me on this terrible day for your country. Could you please start by telling me what your understanding of the scale of this disaster is in terms of people who've been wounded, possibly killed?

ICHIRO FUJISAKI, JAPANESE AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Thank you very much, Mr. Morgan, for giving me this opportunity.

Yes, this is the most terrible earthquake we've had. The largest ever was 1929 with 7.9 magnitude. Now in Japan, it's 8.8, in U.S. calculation, it's 8.9. But huge anyway. The earthquake and death toll, it's increasing every hour. It's close to 200 now, and missing people are 700. So -- and it's increasing, as well. So this is a terrible incident that has hit Japan.

MORGAN: Ambassador, you obviously --

(CROSSTALK)

MORGAN: I'm sorry, after you.

FUJISAKI: For example, in Japan, six million households are out of electricity, that's more than 10 percent of total Japan's households.

MORGAN: That's absolutely staggering statistic. I mean obviously we're seeing these most appalling scenes. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this before.

It looks apocalyptic, Ambassador. I mean when you talk about the kind of casualty numbers that you said just then as a few hundred people, it seems it would be a miracle if it's as low as that.

I mean are you fearing here -- that you may be seeing a toll much, much higher?

FUJISAKI: As what I said is the figure that we have identified up to now. And it's increasing. So the government of Japan is putting all the forces, for example, 2,000 police, 8,000 self-defense force, 300 airplanes, 40 ships and coast guard is putting 300 ships and 40 airplanes.

And we're mobilizing all -- what we can use now. And the -- we have made headquarters at the prime minister and trying to first identify the situation, rescue -- search and rescue is most important. And also put out the huge fire that is going on. And also secure the safety of the infrastructure including electricity with a nuclear power plant, as well.

MORGAN: I was going to ask you about the nuclear power plants. Obviously extremely dangerous situation that we are hearing about involving some of those plants. That they are overheating.

Can you tell me what the latest is in relation to those plants?

FUJISAKI: Yes, we are talking about the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and there are two sites. And the -- around the first site, number one, there is information that radioactive material is increasing. And we are trying to identify the source, the cause and effect of that, and how it is. And the prime minister has ordered people within the radius of 10 kilometers to evacuate.

There are -- second site, and we haven't identified the leakage there, at the second site. But to take a caution prime minister has also instructed people, ordered people to evacuate within three kilometers of that.

And prime minister himself and Nuclear Energy Commission people have flown over the site with helicopters just one or two hours ago. And have been trying to observe the situation from there.

MORGAN: Ambassador, the experts say that the next few hours are crucial in a situation like this. I mean, is it possible we could see a meltdown of one of these plants?

FUJISAKI: I am sorry, I'm not in a position to speculate on that. But up until now, there's not -- I haven't seen any evidence of such, and I haven't been informed of anything like that yet.

But what I want to say, Mr. Morgan, is that we are very grateful to people of America for extending all the support. The president and Secretary Clinton has called. The secretaries have issued the statements and a lot of people, politicians as well as people, and NGOs, have been extending cooperation to us.

And people are saying they would do everything they can do. And sharing their friendship, and we are very grateful to that.

MORGAN: Well, Ambassador, I think the whole world sends its thoughts and condolences and prayers to you and the people of Japan.

FUJISAKI: Yes, yes.

MORGAN: On this terrible day for all of you. We hope that you can --

FUJISAKI: Yes, thank you very much.

MORGAN: -- go back to some normality.

FUJISAKI: Not only the United States but 50 countries and regions have said that they would like to help us as well, and we are very grateful to that. And we really would like to see that this will be taken care of as soon as possible, yes.

MORGAN: Ambassador, thank you very much indeed for your time. Does Japan have only hours to avert a nuclear meltdown? I'll ask the experts.

And coming up, from the Christmas tsunami to last year's quake in Chile to the latest disaster in Japan, what's behind the string of natural catastrophes in recent years? Is it global warming? Is it the moon? Is it something else? We'll find out after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MORGAN: The earthquake in Japan is just the latest in a series of natural disasters that seem to be coming fast and furious. What's behind it all?

Joining me now is Ken Hudnut, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Eddie Bernard, director of Marine Environmental Laboratory and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Ken, can I start with you and just ask you what you think is going on from an expert point of view here?

KEN HUDNUT, U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY: Well, it's not the answer you want to hear, but I would say that statistical analysis would have a hard time finding a pattern here. It's a human tendency to find patterns, though. And so I think whether it's people looking up at the stars and finding constellations or looking at earthquakes happening worldwide, there's a tendency to find pattern when really it's really more or less just coincidental.

MORGAN: And there's some studies suggesting that the earthquake in Japan has caused the earth to spin 1.6 microseconds faster, which would mean that our days become shorter. Can you explain what that means? Is this actually how it sounds?

HUDNUT: Sure. If you picture the plates are going against one another and one is going down under, and so the mass is redistributing as a result. And so it's like an ice skater pulling their arms in closer, they'll spin faster because the mass is concentrating closer to the spin axis. Simple as that.

MORGAN: Eddie Bernard, let me turn to you. It seems to many observers that the scale and ferocity of these natural disasters has increased dramatically over the last decade. Is that correct? Or is this a cyclical thing? What do you think is happening here?

EDDIE BERNARD, NOAA: Well, I think Ken has a good point that if you looked at the geological history of this area, there's been repeated tsunamis generated in the Sendai area. There was a large one in 1856. Another one in 1933. And now one in 2011.

This is a very geologically active area. And it generates tsunamis frequently. And I did want to sort of remind your viewing audience that the word tsunami is a Japanese word. It's a compound word, tsu which means harbor and nami which means wave.

And as the Japanese were developing their country they couldn't build on the coastline because of the severe storms. And so what they did was they would -- their fishing boats would go up into a harbor, up into a river, and when they would see these unusual waves in the harbor, they'd call them tsunami.

And that's -- now, however, in the last 100 years, they've developed more along the coastline than they did in the past. And as a result of this development, when there is a tsunami, you see the effects of this carnage that all your viewers have been seeing unfold today through the videos.

MORGAN: Let me bring in Neil deGrasse Tyson here. From an astrophysics point of view, some people are blaming the moon. Is this complete nonsense, or is there any kind of credence to that theory?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON, ASTROPHYSICIST: It's complete nonsense, but I don't like saying it's nonsense without defending why it is so. The people like to blame -- first, there's this urge to blame the cosmos for things that happen on earth. That's a strong urge, it's been going on since time began. And so that's -- that's the psychology of it.

But the moon spends part of its orbit closer to earth and other parts of its orbit farther away. So its orbit is not a perfect circle, it's an ellipse. When the moon is closer, the gravitational attraction between the earth and moon is stronger than when it's farther away. As it sounds natural.

Another phenomenon is tides. Tides are strongest during full moon and new moon than they are during the quarter phases. Right now, it's the quarter moon. And so it's the weakest configuration for a tide stress, number one. Number two, the moon is not at its closest point to earth. As it would be every month, by the way.

So -- so it's time to simply blame the fact that this region is geologically active as is the entire ring of fire that is the perimeter of the Pacific Ocean that extends down from Chile up to the west coast of South America and North America, the Aleutian Islands, and all the way back down into Asia.

And so -- and another important point that I think hasn't been raised -- we can speak of how -- we can speak of how strong an earthquake is, that's one thing. And you can keep the record of what those are. Another thing is how devastating it is to our civilizations. And that's the juxtaposition of the -- where the earthquake takes place with where there are population centers.

And so when I think of devastating earthquakes, I'm not really ranking just what the most powerful ones are. I want to see where they happen. And when they happen near population centers, that's where you have your greatest disasters.

MORGAN: Neil, let me bring in Ken Hudnut again because we're getting breaking news that another aftershock registering a 6.8 magnitude has just hit Japan.

Ken, what is your reaction to that? And are we going to see more and more of these? Is this one of the inevitable repercussions of an earthquake that size?

HUDNUT: Well, aftershocks do follow some general patterns and can be statistically analyzed. What we would expect to see is a falloff in the number and the severity of aftershocks with time.

For a magnitude 8.9 like this main shock, it would not be surprising to have an aftershock even as large as magnitude 7.9 in the upcoming weeks. And we're always concerned, too, we've just relearned the lesson again in New Zealand that a large late aftershock close to a population center can be especially damaging.

So although aftershock statistics are well understood, sometimes it may seem quite surprising, but these large late aftershocks can really pack a hard punch.

MORGAN: Gentlemen, thank you all very much for your expert opinion there. Much appreciated.

When we come back, the nuclear picture and an incredible survival story. Nate Berkus got closer to a tsunami than most people ever will and made it through just. He joins me next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MORGAN: You're looking at video of the approaching tsunami in Japan earlier. It's an incredible demonstration of nature's unstoppable power. Few people watching from the shore could hope to survive.

But my next guest did exactly that. Joining me now is the host of "The Nate Berkus Show" who survived the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. His very first phone call that day after the disaster was to CNN.

And we have a moment from that conversation now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NATE BERKUS, TSUNAMI SURVIVOR: Desperately, desperately need help from the government here. We're without water, we're without foot. And many of us are injured. We're about a group of 50 tourists as well as many locals, and it's just been utter devastation. Bodies everywhere. And just really absolutely horrible, horrible devastation.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: Nate, thank you so much for joining me. It's been over six years since that call. I would imagine this morning, it was a very emotional time for you bringing back those dreadful memories.

BERKUS: It was, Piers. Thanks very much for having me. It actually was very hard to hear my voice just now on the phone call that I made to CNN because I can hear in my voice the same sort of feelings that I have this morning when I woke up and started watching the coverage of what's been happening over there.

MORGAN: And you tragically lost your partner, Fernando, in that tsunami.

BERKUS: Mm-hmm.

MORGAN: When you see the dreadful suffering that's going on in Japan now, there must be so many people, thousands possibly, who are in a similar position to the one you found yourself in. What possible comfort can you offer them? BERKUS: Well, there's several things. I mean, first of all, the -- they need help, obviously. And I'm happy to know and be watching along with everyone else in the country that help is on its way. But people need the most basic of things.

I had no clothes. I had no water. I had no food for two and a half days after the tsunami hit. And it's unbelievably disorienting. You just don't even know what -- when you're in the thick of it, you just don't know what could possibly be happening.

My heart goes out to everybody, obviously, so very much, because there's psychological ramifications and emotional ramifications that are going to last for years after experiencing something like this. And we're just starting to figure out the amount of the devastation that's happened, the loss of life.

But that is -- that is the domino effect that's just going to keep going and going and going for several -- for several years actually.

MORGAN: Nate, for people who have never been near a tsunami, describe to me the horrifying power of what you experienced that day.

BERKUS: This is the best way I can describe it to you: it's as if you've been dropped into a spin cycle of a washing machine. And when the -- the direction of the water changes, because it does -- a tsunami goes out to sea -- the water all retracts -- and then it comes back, and then it goes out again, and then it comes back.

So there's a tremendous amount of movement. We were hearing all these things, Piers, about 30-foot waves, and all these -- the height of the waves. A five-foot wave can cause just as much havoc. It's the force of the water tearing over a civilization, tearing over a village, tearing over a city.

Think about all the things that go into being -- go into being part of a community, the building materials, the bricks, the mortar, the glass, the cars, the boats, everything that we're seeing on all the footage. All of that is moving at 60 miles an hour over all of the devastation.

And to be dropped in the middle of that, you don't know what to hang on to. You don't know what to grab. Can you touch an electrical wire if it's going to keep you from crashing into a bus? Can you -- can you grab on to a tree? Or is that going hold? Or are you going to be catapulted into the side of a building?

So it is absolutely terrifying. The only thing you can do is try and get your -- keep your head above water to breathe. But beyond that, there is -- there's not much else. It's really the luck of the draw.

And as you said, my partner, Fernando Bengueched (ph), died in the tsunami. I wasn't the better swimmer. So it's -- I understand exactly what's going on there.

MORGAN: Nate, the whole world is watching this with utter horror, and desperate to know how they can help in some constructive, tangible way. You've been through one of these before. And it was pretty chaotic for a long time after that Thailand tsunami struck. Given we've experienced this before there, what do you think is the most sensible and immediate thing that should be done to help the people in Japan?

BERKUS: I think people should be texting to the Red Cross. I remember when the Red Cross arrived in Sri Lanka, and just seeing them arrive on the scene meant that at least things were going to change for the better.

What's -- also keep the hope that you will find your loved ones that are missing. Stay on the social media, Facebook, Twitter, all of these things. Keep posting the pictures of those who are missing. Don't give up on that. Hope because people are disoriented. They've been knocked unconscious. They may not know where they are or what's wrong with them.

So there's always a chance that your loved one has survived. And don't give up that hope. And as soon as they can rebuild or start to rebuild any semblance of infrastructure and the websites start going up where pictures are posted of the people who are missing, or we're able to communicate clearly in some of the hardest hit areas about sightings of family and loved ones, that is the moment to maintain that level of open communication.

And we all just need to pray really at this point.

MORGAN: Nate, I can't thank you enough for coming on today. It must be a desperately sad day for you in many ways. And you've given some incredibly helpful advice there. And we will return to the advice that I think Americans and people in the wider world need now to know how they can help the people in Japan.

BERKUS: Absolutely. It's a global issue. Thank you. Thank you. >

MORGAN: Tonight, does Japan have only hours to avert a nuclear meltdown? I'll ask the experts next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MORGAN: Japan's prime minister has declared a nuclear emergency. He has extended the evacuation order to anybody living within ten kilometer of the reactor. His trade minister admitted that a radiation leak might occur at the Fukushima power plant. And his chief cabinet minister had this to say --

(BEGNI VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): One of the nuclear reactors cannot cool down. Therefore, if the reactor continues to remain at high temperature, we are bracing for the worst scenario. And we are instructing nearby residents to evacuate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: So has a countdown to destruction begun? Joining me now is Richard Lester, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, and Matthew Wald, "the New York Times'" nuclear expert.

Matthew, if I may start with you, what is your understanding of the latest situation at the Fukushima plant?

MATTHEW WALD, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": They -- when you shut down a nuclear plant, you're continuing to produce heat. You have to have electricity to run the valves, run the pumps, and cool the place down.

They lost not only the grid, which is down and will probably be down for some time to come, but apparently the tsunami wiped out the emergency diesel generators.

They have batteries. The batteries won't last forever. They're rushing to find an alternate form of electricity. They don't have a lot of time to do this. But so far, they don't have a lot of damage either. They're really racing to get things set up before the battery power is lost.

MORGAN: And how long do we have here? What is the hour-by-hour time scale that we could be looking at before there's some sort of inevitable meltdown?

WALD: At this point, a meltdown is not inevitable. But it's a little hard to say. Each of these plants is designed a little differently. The company has been issuing frequent updates. But it really hasn't said how long they can keep going in the stopgap method.

What they're doing now is they have a pump that runs on steam, not electricity. As long as you're making heat, you have steam. The pump is dumping more coolant, more water into the reactor. That's slowly boiling off and being released, which gives you minor releases.

And they need electricity to run the valves, to monitor the system, et cetera. They don't need a lot of electricity. They've got other reactors at the site. They've got other diesel generators.

They need to get some form of generation running. I heard one report that they have an emergency generator they brought into the site. They have a good chance of getting this up and running before they have significant damage. But it's kind of nerve wracking.

MORGAN: Professor Lester, if I can bring you in here, I mean, you obviously have seen many such situations in varying degrees. How serious do you think this one is in Japan?

RICHARD LESTER, MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: Well, actually there haven't been very many situations of this degree of seriousness. I think this is a very serious situation. What the operators have got to try to do is to keep the fuel in the core covered with water as much as possible, because the water is what allows the fuel to cool down.

If they can't keep the fuel covered, it will heat up, and at some point it will begin to release radioactivity. There is, in fact, some evidence that a small amount of radioactivity release has already occurred. There are reports of iodine being measured, both in the reactor and possibly also outside, which suggests that there's been at least some failure of the fuel.

But it remains to be seen how long it will take, of course, to get more water in the core. The key thing is to get water in the core. As Matt points out, at the moment, they're very limited in their ability to do that because of the loss of the diesel generators.

MORGAN: Matthew Wald, let me come back to you. If the doomsday scenario does occur and we see a meltdown with radiation, what will that do to the environment in Japan? And what does it mean for nuclear plants in America, for example, if a similar thing was to happen here?

WALD: There's the beginning of renaissance in nuclear construction all over Asia and, to some extent, in the United States. This is all premised on the existing plants running well. If there's a major incident, that is not good for the nuclear construction business. The plants that are running in this country will probably continue to run without difficulty.

I don't know what effect it will have. One of the complications is after an earthquake, it's hard to move people. It's harder to move in all the problems you need -- all the equipment you need.

MORGAN: Matthew Wald, Professor Lester, thank you both very much for your time. We will have to wait and see what happens in that plant. It is a very worrying time for Japan and the world.

What if the unthinkable was to happen here in America? Is this country prepared for such a disaster? I'll ask the mayor of Los Angeles next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MORGAN: Imagine the toll if a natural disaster like today's earthquake and tsunami struck closer to home. What would happen in a city like Los Angeles? Well, a magnitude 7.8 quake would kill nearly 2,000 people and injure 50,000 more. Are we prepared?

Joining me now is the Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Mayor Villaraigosa, dreadful scenes in Japan. You, as a mayor of a massive city in America that has suffered numerous earthquakes, must look at what's going on there and wonder, wow, are we going to get one of these here soon? And if so, are we prepared to deal with it?

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (D), LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA: First of all, Piers, our hearts and prayers are with the people of Japan, and the -- the Japanese American community that lives here in Los Angeles, the largest in the United States.

And yes, that's a question that any chief executive and that our first responders ask ourselves all the time, which is why L.A. has a state of the art emergency operations center, which is why we collaborate with our local and state and federal partners in the way that we do, and why we participate in the largest preparedness exercise in the United States of America.

It started here. It's called the Great California Shakeout. It -- businesses, schools, first responders participate on a level that is not replicated anywhere in the country.

MORGAN: I mean, Mr. Mayor, we hear in Japan that many lives may have been saved by the fact there was at least some warning given to the people even if it was just 30 seconds or so. Do you have that kind of fail safe system in place? Or could California be caught -- could Los Angeles be caught completely unawares?

How fast can these tsunamis strike, can these quakes strike?

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, I'm not an expert on that, but I can tell you the following: I got in real-time on my Blackberry. I was in Washington, D.C., I was woke up early in the morning and we got regular updates on what the status of the earthquake and the tsunami watch was.

We participated in an exercise to reassess our tsunami weak points, if you will, along our city's coast. In 2009, we put up tsunami watch signs. We have reassessed where the points of weaknesses are. We had a number of unified commands at the port, at the airport, and in west Los Angeles to monitor all of this.

And we were on top of it from early in the morning to this afternoon.

MORGAN: And let me ask you about the behavior of some people on the coast. I was flabbergasted that despite warnings of a potential tsunami, you've got people going out surfing, swimming, as if nothing is happening. Is that just crass stupidity, in your view?

VILLARAIGOSA: Yes. Yes is the answer. Look, Piers, we've seen this in fires and evacuations, with floods that we've had, and in earthquakes. Unfortunately, despite the fact that we warn people not to go to these areas of devastation and destruction, often times they don't heed the warning.

We can close the beach, as an example, but people will still try to come. It's happened many, many times. And it the utmost in stupidity, as you said.

MORGAN: Mayor Villaraigosa, thank you so much for your time.

VILLARAIGOSA: Thank you.

MORGAN: Coming up, I'll ask a weather experts -- thank you. Coming up, I'll ask the weather experts what is the ring of fire? Why is it so dangerous? CNN's Rob Marciano and ABC's Sam Champion join me next.

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MORGAN: Appalling scenes in Japan following the quake and then subsequent tsunami. I want to bring in two experts on weather and on natural disasters like the one we've seen in Japan, CNN meteorologist Rob Marciano, and ABC weather anchor Sam Champion.

Rob, let me start with you. Have you in your lifetime seen anything quite like what we witnessed in Japan in the last 24 hours?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: No, definitely not. You know, in the last couple of years, with Haiti and Chile, you would think you've seen quite a bit. And it just seems to be getting worse.

What we've seen with this is a historic event, no doubt about that, with what happened in Japan. And then the hemispheric event, really, with what happened across the entire hemisphere. This is truly extraordinary stuff.

The amount of energy that came with this, and the devastation along the Japan coast, and then propagating towards Hawaii, the West Coast of the U.S., and even now, Piers -- even now, the waves should be hitting parts of Chile and other coastlines on the west side of South America.

So we're still not done with this event.

MORGAN: Sam Champion, we're hearing a lot about the ring of fire. What is the ring of fire and what does it mean now going forward?

SAM CHAMPION, ABC WEATHER ANCHOR: Incredibly active zone, Piers. It's this horse shoe shaped area. Just goes kind of up and around the entire Pacific Ocean, start in New Zealand, run up towards the Philippines, run up in Japan, connects to the Aleutian Islands, comes down the West Coast of the U.S., the Alaskan coastline, the western coast of California, the Mexican coast, all the way down to Chile.

Basically, right in the center of it, where Hawaii is, kind of the center, that's the Pacific Plate. Basically what we talk about are these plates. There's about 14 giant plates of the Earth's surface that shift and grind on each other all over the world.

In this one particular zone, this ring of fire, this is where a lot of the action happens. The Japanese trench on the west side of this, where this Pacific Plate actually goes under Japan. It's one of the most active areas in the world. There are about 1,500 earthquakes there every year.

On the ring of fire, if you follow it all the way around, there -- about 90 percent of the earthquakes happen on the ring of fire. There's about 450 active volcanoes around the ring of fire.

It is this very active zone where the Earth is always in movement. And it's just been astounding today to watch the planet in action, and watch the energy, as Rob said, come out of this zone and spread all across the globe.

MORGAN: Rob, America has emerged pretty unscathed so far, certainly by comparison to what's happened in Japan. Are you confident that it will continue to be unscathed? Or could we be on the verge here of some really quite shocking repercussions from this quake and tsunami in Japan? MARCIANO: I think most of the danger has passed with this. The West Coast is still under a tsunami advisory. There's still some shaking going on. But for the most part, the danger has passed there. And we don't typically see a huge quake happen on one side of the world and then, say, the San Andreas Fault goes on the other.

I want to touch on something that Sam pointed as far as the faults with this, the thrust fault that happens underneath the Japanese trench, and why this earthquake spawned a tsunami.

Deep underneath the ocean there, you've got these two zones. One is subducting under the other. Then the stresses build up and then boom, it just pops.

That pop moves all that water. And then we saw just how much force that carries with it across the ocean. And what's scary about it -- what's been scary all day, you don't see it. You couldn't even feel it if you're on a boat. And with it traveling to 500 miles an hour, it got Midway, got to Hawaii, got to the West Coast, and now getting to South America, and doing damage thousands of miles away from the epicenter of this quake.

That to me is what is truly remarkable.

MORGAN: Sam, finally, and quickly, we've seen some pretty wild weather in America in the last few months. Are we going to carry on seeing this through the rest of the year? Is it now completely unpredictable?

CHAMPION: Piers, if I could forecast the weather for the rest of the year, I would do it right now, go home and call it a day. No, we don't know. The pattern right now has been wild this way across the U.S. We know that the pattern will be wild through spring. We hope we'll settle down through summer right now.

But there is an awful lot atmospherically going on the globe. We'll have to have a whole show for that, Piers.

MORGAN: Thank you both very much for that update on the weather. It's been a truly ghastly day in the history of Japan and a terrible day for the world. If you want to help the people of Japan in the wake of this disaster, text to Red Cross to 90999 and donate 10 dollars to the American Red Cross. That will help those poor people tonight.

That's all for us tonight. Now here's my colleague Anderson Cooper with "AC 360."