The massive earthquake and tsunami that rocked and ravaged large parts of northern Japan have caused near apocalyptic devastation to the land and the environment. The 9.0-magnitude shock, the largest ever recorded in the earthquake-prone country, was brutally magnified by massive tsunami waves that washed onto the main island.

The results were shockingly described by Prime Minister Naoto Kan: “Japan is experiencing its greatest hardships since World War II” as it tackles the aftermath of an earthquake, tsunami and a growing nuclear power-plant crisis.

Beyond the destruction, the deaths of probably more than 10,000 people and the dislocation of hundreds of thousands, comes the realization that the quake hit a country that is instinctively counted on to help with natural disasters elsewhere.

When natural disasters strike, be they in Haiti, Pakistan or, more recently, New Zealand, Japan has always been on the shortlist of first responders to offer help, assistance and followup aid, along with the United States, Canada, Australia and the Europeans. Now a tragedy has hit this key first responder head-on.

Anyone who covers natural disaster response, rescue and relief knows that Japan has distinguished itself as a major donor state. When the massive 2004 tsunami hit Indonesia and Thailand, Japan along with the United States and Australia were among the major donors in aid and followup relief. Last year’s horrific earthquake in Haiti that killed over 220,000 people, also saw immediate aid from Japan. Much of this aid goes through U.N. humanitarian agencies and some is given directly.

Now the grim reaper has brought its horrible wrath to the island of Honshu and massive devastation in prefectures northeast of Tokyo, even as the economy remains in a cautious recovery.

Global assistance has been quick to mobilize, as American, British, Canadian and German specialized teams are sent into the humanitarian fray. Israel has been among the first to help just as it did in Haiti. Taiwan and South Korea, both with highly specialized disaster rescue teams, have helped, too.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan is on the scene offshore and, along with a dozen U.S. naval ships, is assisting with relief including precious helicopter assets.

The Japanese islands are no stranger to devastating earthquakes. The Great Kanto Quake in 1923 saw 100,000 die after a 7.9 magnitude shock. As recently as 1995, the Kobe earthquake (7.3 magnitude) killed 6,000. This earthquake (8.9 magnitude) was a thousand times stronger than the 2010 quake in Haiti. Moreover, a 10-meter tsunami that hit Miyako city and parts of Sendai turned a strip of a once-thriving seacoast into a grim wasteland.

Precisely because of the danger from quakes, aftershocks and tsunami waves, Japan has among the best preventive building codes and standards in the world — unlike Indonesia or many developing countries where poor building codes and unorganized civil defense magnify calamities.

Rescue teams and humanitarian agencies in Japan will confront a wider disaster than many imagine — devastation, flooding, fires and the dangerously damaged nuclear power reactors along the Fukushima coast. Massive power cuts will affect areas all the way to metropolitan Tokyo.

There will be very dark days ahead, with frightening aftershocks, yet the resilient Japanese will cope. And Japan’s friends in the U.S., Europe and East Asia will offer what is needed for the massive search and humanitarian effort.

The terrible irony remains that nature appears to have shown little remorse in a country that in recent decades has been so very generous in assisting others with humanitarian gestures. Now it is our turn to help the Japanese.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “The USA/Euroland Rift?” (University Press, 2010).

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