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Quakes in Japan, New Zealand: Both deadly, but in different ways

March 12, 2011 |  8:40 am

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The monstrous magnitude-8.9 earthquake created a deadly tsunami that devastated swaths of Japan. But the shaking from the quake itself did not appear to flatten entire areas in the same way the quake in New Zealand last month did.

Why?

One key factor: the location of the Japan earthquake, which was centered in the Pacific Ocean 80 miles away from the closest Japanese city, Sendai. The magnitude-6.3 earthquake in New Zealand on Feb. 22 was centered only six miles from the center of Christchurch, which was devastated by building collapses.

At least 166 people were confirmed dead In the New Zealand quake. “This earthquake was not a direct hit,” Kit Miyamoto, chief executive officer of Miyamoto International, an earthquake structural engineering company with offices in Japan and California, said in a telephone interview Saturday.

“If this was a direct hit underneath a major city like Tokyo or Osaka, it would have caused a total disaster,” said Miyamoto, who was on a train in Tokyo when the quake struck. The expected death toll from Friday’s quake and tsunami was still climbing, and could top 1,600 or more, according to Kyodo News Agency.

Indeed, the fatalities wrought by Friday’s quake appeared to be largely caused by the tsunami, while fatalities during Japan’s last major temblor in Kobe were mostly caused by collapsing homes. The far weaker magnitude 6.9 quake in 1995 killed more than 6,000 people.

A key difference in that quake was that the epicenter was only 12 miles away from the Kobe city center. The 80 miles between the eastern coast of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, and the epicenter “made a big difference” on Friday, Miyamoto said.

And even though building collapses haven’t been shown prominently on TV broadcasts in the United States, they did occur. Miyamoto said he saw images of a building collapse in Kanagawa Prefecture, which is even farther away from the quake epicenter than Tokyo. “It’s a ‘Big One,’ but it’s a far away ‘Big One,’” Miyamoto said.

If a “Big One” were to hit directly underneath Tokyo, “you’re going to see an unbelievable amount of destruction,” he said.

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-- Rong-Gong Lin II

Photo: Damage from the Christchurch, New Zealand, quake. Credit: Torsten Blackwood / AFP/Getty Images

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