With waves up to 35 meters, the tsunami that crashed into the eastern coast of Japan caused 90 percent of the deaths and most of the serious damage happened during the March 11 earthquake.
The researchers from UC Berkeley and several other institutions found that "shake damage" to buildings was relatively minor. In downtown Sendai, out of the tsunami's path, there was surprisingly little structural damage.
"Some of these high tech industries, the building might've done very well, but the contents, some of this very sophisticated equipment was knocked out of service," explained Stanford engineer Greg Deierlein, Ph.D.
Much of the building damage that did occur was the result of liquefaction, a phenomenon that could certainly play a role in a large quake in Northern California.
"There's a lot of soil in the Bay Area that is near the water, and there was lots of damage from that same kind of site in Japan. So, we're going to learn a lot from that type of information we're gathering," said Stephen Mahin at the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Center.
Though most levees in Japan stood up very well, damage to other types of infrastructure was widespread. 3,700 highways and dozens of bridges were destroyed. 16 conventional power plants and 12 nuclear plants were damaged, including at Fukushima. Important rail lines and 45 percent of the fishing ports in Eastern Japan were devastated and there was severe damage to water systems.
Miraculously, much of that was repaired within a month of the quake. Researchers are also looking at the damage to the psyche of the Japanese people who are already calling the March earthquake "3-11."