Japan issues tsunami warning after powerful earthquake off coast

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JAPAN (CNN) — A tsunami warning is in effect for Japan’s Fukushima and Miyagi Prefectures after a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck off Honshu at 5:59 a.m. Tuesday (3:59 p.m. Monday ET).

Japanese authorities urged residents of those northeast coastal areas to leave immediately for higher ground and to not return until warnings had been lifted. Tsunami waves of 1-3 meters (3-10 feet) are possible, according to the US Geological Survey, which said the quake struck 37 kilometers (23 miles) east-southeast of Namie at a depth of 11.4 kilometers (7 miles).

Two aftershocks were reported by USGS, one 5.4 and one 4.8.

Tsunami waves have been spotted along the coast and more are expected, according to the Japanese Meteorological Agency. The first one reached the coast at Iwaki-shi in Fukushima Prefecture at 6:29 a.m. local time. The largest so far, a 1.4-meter tsunami, was observed in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, at 8:03 a.m. according to JMA.

Video on social media from Onahama featured sounds of sirens in response to the warning in effect. Images of the port showed waves that the broadcaster described as “backwash” that happens before a tsunami hits shore.

NHK urged the public to evacuate, cautioning that even if waves appear low in the ocean they can rise as they reach shore. The broadcaster reminded people to dress warmly in the cold rain and urged them to help others leave.

“Please do not think that you are safe. Please evacuate to high grounds,” the network said. “Please think about the worst-case scenario and evacuate right away.”

The tremors could be felt as far Tokyo, where American businessman Jonathan Swanson was having breakfast in a hotel and catching up on e-mail.

“Suddenly I felt disoriented,” he told CNN’s Michael Holmes.

Doors started to swing on cabinets and sliding doors started to move. He realized what was happening.

“You could feel the building really swaying back and forth for at least a couple of minutes. It was pretty scary.”

While he was scared he was mindful of the fact that Japan takes its earthquakes seriously. Guests appeared “calm” as staffers checked in on everyone.

“They seemed like pros about this,” he said. “Everyone very calm and collected.”

Swanson is from San Francisco and has felt his share of tremors over the years.

“But this was significantly bigger than anything I felt in San Francisco … this was just more extended. The swaying was significantly more than I’d ever felt.”

Earthquakes are common in Japan. The most recent was a 6.2 magnitude in late October near Kurayoshi, a city to the west of Osaka, which caused a handful of injuries.

The epicenter of this latest earthquake was not far south of the 2011 quake that caused a devastating tsunami, damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and killed more than 15,000 people. The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan will rank among the costliest natural disasters on record.

The 2011 quake moved Japan’s coast 8 feet and shifted the Earth’s axis, ranking among the costliest natural disasters on record.

Tokyo Electric Power Company Inc. said there had been no abnormalities or change in radiation levels at Fukushima Daiichi. A cooling pump system that temporarily stopped has resumed operation, a TEPCO spokesman told CNN.

There is no tsunami threat to Hawaii as a result of the quake, the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management said.

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