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Japan's Tsunami Topped 70 Feet in One Estimate

Video footage of the tsunami that hit Japan this month makes it clear: This was no ordinary wave. And now there are initial estimates for just how high it reached -- nearly 80 feet in at least one place.

A field survey from the country’s Port and Airport Research Institute put the height of a tsunami wave that struck a coastal city in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture on March 11 at 77.4 feet high.

"Watching the video images on TV of the Japan tsunami, it is not a surprise that the tsunami was as large as is starting to be reported," said Guy Gelfenbaum, a United States Geological Survey Oceanographer, in an email to FoxNews.com. "While it is not a surprise, tsunami heights this large are not common -- they are fairly rare.

But even at that height, the wave in Ofunato was lower than Japan’s domestic record of 125 feet, measured in the 1896 Meiji Sanriku Earthquake Tsunami, which killed 27,000 on the Japanese island of Honshu.

Kazuhiko Toda, a researcher at the institute, told Kyodo News the height of the recent tsunami was measured where counter-tsunami facilities and breakwaters were set up. He added that the location of the reading may have given an artificially lower power recording than the tsunami in 1896.

Gelfenbaum said tsunami wave heights are measured by the depth of water above ground, the depth of water above sea level at the time of the tsunami and the elevation of the ground at the maximum inundation distance.

"The size of the tsunami in Japan has occurred in other places, like Sumatra in 2004, and most likely in Chile after the 1960 earthquake and tsunami," Gelfenbaum said. "It can occur in other coastal areas adjacent to subduction zones."

A 2004 magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra generated a 114.5 foot wave that killed 230,000 in a dozen countries surrounding the Indian Ocean.

The recent crisis is emerging as the world's most expensive natural disaster on record, likely to cost up to $309 billion, according to a new Japanese government estimate. The death toll continued to rise, with more than 9,400 bodies counted and more than 15,600 people listed as missing.

Survivors, meanwhile, buried the dead from the disaster in makeshift coffins, resorting to wrapping some bodies in blue tarps.

In Higashimatsushima, about 200 miles northeast of Tokyo, soldiers lowered bare plywood coffins into the ground, saluting each casket, as families watched from a distance. Two young girls wept inconsolably, their father hugging them tight.

"I hope their spirits will rest in peace here at this temporary place," said mourner Katsuko Oguni, 42.

Hundreds of thousands remained homeless, squeezed into temporary shelters without heat, warm food or medicine and no idea what to call home after the colossal wave swallowed up cities and towns along the coast.

A spike in radiation levels in Tokyo tap water also spurred new fears about food safety Wednesday as rising black smoke forced another evacuation of workers trying to stabilize Japan's radiation-leaking nuclear plant.

Radiation has seeped into vegetables, raw milk, the water supply and seawater the twin disasters two weeks ago. Broccoli was added to a list of tainted vegetables, and U.S. and Hong Kong officials announced a block on Japanese dairy and some produce from the region.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.