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Reporters Notebook: Japan's Mega-Quake and Earthquakes Past

A smoke billows from a fire as an area of Soma port is flooded by waters after tsunami spawned by a powerful earthquake in Soma, Fukushima prefecture (state), Japan, Friday, March 11, 2011.  A powerful tsunami spawned by the largest earthquake in Japan's recorded history slammed the eastern coast Friday, sweeping away boats, cars, homes and people as widespread fires burned out of control. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, FOR COMMERCIAL USE ONLY IN NORTH AMERICA

A smoke billows from a fire as an area of Soma port is flooded by waters after tsunami spawned by a powerful earthquake in Soma, Fukushima prefecture (state), Japan, Friday, March 11, 2011. A powerful tsunami spawned by the largest earthquake in Japan's recorded history slammed the eastern coast Friday, sweeping away boats, cars, homes and people as widespread fires burned out of control. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, FOR COMMERCIAL USE ONLY IN NORTH AMERICA

Even before the shaking stopped, I recognized it. “Earthquake,” I answered my speechless wife Erica’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed, but unasked question about what the hell was happening. It was the evening of December 27th, 2010, and a 5.4 magnitude shaker had just hit central Puerto Rico, about 15 miles away, giving us a short, sharp series of significant house-rattling jolts. Once things settled down, all I worried about was whether the shaker would spawn a tsunami that could swamp our tiny, low-lying mangrove island home just off Puerto Rico’s south coast.

Nothing came of it, but that moment of doubt and fear of what the mighty ocean might have in store came sweeping back this Friday morning when I turned on the car radio on the way to work, and heard about the historic, gigantic quake that struck Japan overnight.

In the office preparing for ‘Fox and Friends’ aside from the hair-raising stories coming from amateur videos and social media of a Japanese nuclear plant shutdown, the hobbling of modern Tokyo and the vast extent of damage up and down the sea shore, the scariest scenes to me were of the helpless vessels being tossed around and over by the angry-looking, dirty-brown waves created by the mighty 8.9 earthquake.

Having lived through and reported from the scene of earthquakes from Santiago, Chile, in 1973 to Guatemala City, where 25,000 died in 1976, to Northridge California in 1994, there is no feeling more unsettling than when the earth itself betrays you. But it is far worse when you combine that crashing, smashing, disorienting terror of the ground becoming unglued with mountains of ocean unleashed. As a world sailor, the “Poseidon Adventure” scenario is a haunting nightmare; sturdy vessels being tossed and turned around and upside down like children’s toys. More common than quake-generated monster waves are so-called ‘rogue’ waves that are bigger than their neighbors and often come from unexpected directions like mini-tsunamis. And it is the weight of that water which can wreak such havoc on ships and coastal areas in an earthquake.

When the waters recede, the dead will be deep into the hundreds or even thousands, far more than initial survivor reports indicate. Remember how the Indonesian tsunami of 1994 eventually claimed a quarter-million lives. Our technology gives us the ability to predict within seconds when a racing tsunami will reach a particular coast. But nothing stops that raging water but higher ground.

Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.

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