PASADENA, Calif. – Take the world's most earthquake-prepared country, jolt it with one of the biggest quakes in history and add a devastating tsunami minutes later. In the classic battle of Man vs. Nature, Nature won again.
Hundreds if not thousands of people are dead in Japan. One of the world's most technologically advanced and earthquake-prone nations is paralyzed by a 8.9-magnitude "megathrust." It was the fifth-strongest quake in the world since 1900 and the most powerful on record ever to hit Japan, but not the deadliest.
And it could have been worse.
"No matter what we do, we're not totally safe," said disaster preparedness expert Dennis Mileti, a former California seismic safety commissioner. "Nature can always throw an event at us that exceeds what we've designed for."
Because of warning systems, the tsunami wasn't as deadly worldwide as some in the past. Most buildings withstood the shaking. The quake was 700 times more powerful than the one that struck Haiti last year, but the death toll appears to be far lower than the 220,000-plus killed in the Caribbean.
Friday's quake caused a rupture 186 miles long and 93 miles wide in the sea floor 80 miles off the eastern coast of Japan. It happened 15 miles beneath the sea floor.
All the way across the Pacific Ocean, in California and Oregon, the tsunami tore docks apart and knocked boats loose.
The quake was caused when one giant tectonic plate was shoved under another, the type of movement that produces the biggest earthquakes. It's the same kind of quake that caused the devastating 2004 Indonesian tsunami.
"You're looking at something that's rupturing a very significant patch of the Earth's crust," said David Applegate, senior science adviser at the U.S. Geological Survey. "If anyone is in the position to ride this out, it is the Japanese."
Earthquake experts in the U.S. say Japan has the strongest building standards in the world for withstanding earthquakes. It trains and prepares more for them. And unlike the United States, Japan adopted an expensive earthquake early warning system that gave people a precious few seconds to duck and cover.
And still the result was devastating.
"The energy radiated by this quake is nearly equal to one month's worth of energy consumption" in the United States, said U.S. Geological Survey scientist Brian Atwater.
The force of the quake was so strong that it moved the island of Honshu 8 feet to the east, said USGS geophysicist Ken Hudnut. It sped up the Earth's rotation by 1.6 microseconds, according to NASA.
USGS seismologist Lucy Jones said a friend who was in Tokyo for a tsunami planning meeting noted the shaking after the initial shock lasted for about five minutes.
"No matter how well we do, things like tsunamis and the shaking are still going to cause damage," said Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate.
Japan, which has what Mileti calls "an earthquake culture," has long steeled itself for "the Next One," but this one happened hundreds of miles north of where experts expected. This area of Japan has not had an earthquake in this size range for more than 1,100 years, Applegate and Atwater said.
The quake happened at the intersection of the North American and Pacific plates in the northwestern chunk of the "Ring of Fire," in an area that "has been incredibly quiet," Applegate said.