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In the aftermath of Japan's massive earthquake, President Obama said the United States is "ready to help the Japanese people in this time of great trial."
The president later spoke with Prime Minister Naoto Kan and offered assistance.
Update: An explosion severely damaged a nuclear power plant in northern Japan on Saturday, blowing the roof off one building and forcing an evacuation of the surrounding area because of a radiation leak. The blast rocked the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and smoke billowed up from a reactor, its containment vessel still protected by metal casing.
At a news conference Friday, Obama said he was confident Japan would rebuild quickly, praising the strong economy and resourcefulness of the people.
"It has dealt with (natural disasters) before and will deal with them again. And Japan, I'm sure, will come back stronger than ever -- hopefully with our help," he said.
Obama was awakened at 4 a.m. by Chief of Staff William Daley, who informed him of the 8.9 magnitude quake, the largest in Japanese history, according to the Associated Press.
The official death toll stood at 574 on Saturday, but a government spokesman said at least 1,000 had perished. Thousands more were missing following the earthquake, which triggered more than 70 aftershocks and a powerful tsunami that swept over cities and farmland in the northern part of the country.
Obama got a mid-morning briefing from FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and other senior officials who updated him on the evolving situation, including "actions being taken to assist U.S. states and territories that could be affected," the White House said.
The quake damaged a nuclear plant about 170 miles northeast of Tokyo. The New York Times reported that thousands of residents in a six-mile radius of the facility were evacuated and the government declared a state of emergency. Experts estimated radiation levels were 1,000 times above normal in a reactor control room after the quake damaged the plant's cooling system.
The president said he asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu to be prepared to assist with any breaches in Japan's nuclear power system, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Three U.S. warships in southeast Asia were ordered out to sea to reposition themselves in case they are directed to provide assistance to Japan, an American 7th Fleet spokesman told the Times. The Pentagon said there were no reports of damage to American military facilities or naval vessels.
The U.S. would "continue to closely monitor tsunamis around Japan and the Pacific going forward," Obama said. He instructed FEMA to be ready to assist areas that could be affected by the tidal surges. Waves as high as seven feet hit parts of Hawaii but little damage was reported. Powerful surges also reached the U.S. west coast, causing boats to sink in northern California. At least four people in California were swept out to sea and one was still missing.
Watch video of the scene in Japan, courtesy the Associated Press.
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