published Friday, March 11th, 2011

Obama offers to assist earthquake-stricken Japan

JULIE PACE,Associated Press
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    President Obama (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama assured earthquake-ravaged Japan Friday that the United States "stands ready to help" and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is ready to come to the aid of Hawaii and West Coast states that could be hit by Pacific tsunamis.

Obama said in an early morning statement that his administration would "continue to closely monitor tsunamis around Japan and the Pacific going forward" and he directed FEMA to mobilize.

The largest earthquake in Japan's history — measured at a magnitude of 8.9 — pummeled the eastern coast of Japan Friday, accompanied by a towering tsunami. Hundreds were dead or missing.

FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said tsunami warnings and watches have been issued for the U.S. territories of Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, and coastal areas in Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington.

Fugate urged people living in those areas to monitor their local news for instructions from their state and local officials, and evacuate if ordered to do so. And the Coast Guard said it was making preparations to provide support where necessary.

It said that Coast Guard cutter and aircraft crews were positioning themselves to be ready to conduct response and survey missions as soon as conditions allow.

Obama's chief of staff Bill Daley notified the president about the earthquake in Japan at 4 a.m. Washington time. Obama said the U.S. is ready to support the Japanese people "in this time of great trial."

"The friendship and alliance between our two nations is unshakeable," he said, "and only strengthens our resolve to stand with the people of Japan as they overcome this tragedy."

"Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the people of Japan, particularly those who have lost loved ones in the earthquake and tsunamis," Obama's statement said.

The president was expected to discuss the situation in Japan and on the West Coast during a White House news conference early Friday afternoon.

The Pentagon said earlier that the U.S. Pacific Command reported all American military personnel in Japan had been accounted for. Press secretary Geoff Morrell said there are no reports of injuries to U.S. personnel there or damage to U.S. installations or ships in the area.

Morrell, who is traveling with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Brussels, said that Gates was briefed by Pacific Command officials Friday while he was attending a NATO meeting on the Afghanistan war.

The State Department issued a travel alert, strongly urging U.S. citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Japan.

"Tokyo airports are currently closed," it said. "Other airports in Japan may be closed or have restricted access. Public transportation, including trains and subways, are closed in the Tokyo area, and service has been interrupted in many other areas."

"Strong aftershocks are likely for weeks," the department said. It urged U.S. citizens currently in Japan to "contact family and friends in the United States to confirm their well-being at the earliest opportunity."

Spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted early Friday that ambassador John Roos "has moved our U.S. Embassy's command center to an alternate location as a precaution, given the many aftershocks in Tokyo."

"We have been watching a hopeful tsunami sweep across the Middle East. Now we are seeing a tsunami of a different kind sweep across Japan," Crowley said.

At home, FEMA's Fugate said that "our immediate priority is the safety of the people and communities in the affected areas."

"FEMA is closely monitoring the affects of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan," he said, "and through our regional offices in the West Coast and the Pacific area, we are in close contact and coordination with state and local officials and stand ready to support them in any way needed."

The Navy said Friday that the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which was in the Western Pacific, was preparing to respond if asked, and was moving toward Japan.

There were no reports of damage to the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which was in port in Japan. In Guam, the mooring lines of two US navy submarines broke free of the pier, but there was no damage and the ships were pushed back by tugs.

No ships have been moved as a result of the potential tsunami in Hawaii.

Vice President Joe Biden, making a joint appearance at a news conference in Chisinau, Moldova Friday with Prime Minister Vlad Filat, said "the thoughts and prayers of the American people" are with the Japanese, who he said had suffered through a "mega earthquake."

"We, the United States, stand ready to do anything we can to help our Japanese friends as they deal with the aftermath of this tragedy," Biden said.

_ Associated Press reporters Matthew Lee, Alicia Caldwell and Lolita Baldor contributed to this story.

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