Tokyo (CNN) — The most powerful earthquake to hit Japan in at least 100 years unleashed walls of water Friday that swept across rice fields, engulfing towns, dragging houses onto highways and tossing cars and boats like toys, apparently killing hundreds and forcing the evacuations of tens of thousands.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the “enormously powerful” earthquake has caused “tremendous damage over a wide area.”
The quake, which struck at 2:46 pm local time, sparked fires in at least 80 locations, Japan’s Kyodo News Service reported, and prompted the U.S. National Weather Service to issue tsunami warnings for at least 50 countries and territories.
Police in Miyagi Prefecture say between 200-300 have been found in the coastal city of Sendai alone, Japan’s Kyodo News Agency reported late Friday. The death toll is likely to rise as there are few casualty counts yet from the worst-hit areas.
Kyodo, citing Japan’s defense forces, said 60,000 to 70,000 people were being evacuated to shelters in the Sendai area.
Japanese authorities ordered the precautionary evacuation of a nuclear plant affected by the earthquake, saying that while there was no immediate danger, crews were having trouble cooling the reactor. The Fukushima plant is one of four closest to the quake that the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said were safety shut down.