- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

TOKYO | The earthquake and tsunami took only minutes to destroy Japan’s northeast. Rebuilding will take years — if the country can afford it.

The relentless wall of water that the quake unleashed killed thousands, swept away whole towns, inundated roads and knocked ports, oil refineries, steel plants and factories out of action.

Experts say the cost of the destruction likely exceeds that of the catastrophic 1995 Kobe earthquake, estimated by Standard & Poor’s to have totaled $159 billion.

Reconstruction will be extremely challenging because the damage is so widespread and has likely destroyed power lines and water treatment facilities, said Jun Yang, president of the Hong Kong branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“In my view it would take five to 10 years to rebuild or repair,” said Mr. Yang, who as an associate professor at Hong Kong University carried out field research in Sichuan, China after the devastating earthquake there in 2008.

The four most severely affected provinces — Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki — are home to industries from farming to auto parts to electronics and make up some 6 percent of Japan’s economy.

The biggest port on the northeast coast, Sendai, has been destroyed. It handled mainly container shipments of exports including rubber and marine products, office machinery, paper goods and auto parts. Three other ports —
Hachinohe, Ishinomaki and Onahama — were severely damaged and will likely be out of commission for months.

Six oil refineries that can turn 1.4 million barrels of oil a day into fuel — a third of Japan’s refining capacity — are shut down.

Steel plants have also been hit.

Nippon Steel Corp.’s factory in Kamaishi, in Inwate, was shut after the tsunami flooded part of the plant. The facility makes steel and wire rods for vehicle powertrains and chassis. Sumitomo Metal Industries Ltd. plant in Kashima, Ibaraki prefecture also went dark after the earthquake.

Elsewhere, widespread power shortages from damage to four nuclear plants have forced many companies to halt production.

Sony Corp. has halted output at several factories, including one that makes Blu-Ray discs. Toshiba Corp. has done the same. All automakers including Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s biggest, have stopped making cars nationwide.

Companies are also facing problems shipping components, receiving raw materials and getting workers to facilities that are working, said Dale Ford, an analyst at technology market research firm IHS iSuppli.

The components made by Japan’s hi-tech industry are destined for final assembly in China and other countries. Analysts said there’s enough inventory in the global supply chain to tide over customers up to four weeks and companies such as Apple, Dell and Lenovo will have to switch to backup sources by then to avoid shortages of parts for iPads and computers.

Initial estimates of insurance losses from the disaster range as high as $60 billion.

The rebuilding effort is expected to require tens of billions of dollars of public spending that will benefit construction companies but add to the already swollen national debt.

After the 1995 Kobe quake, Japan’s economy was able to rebound relatively quickly because the government boosted public spending by more than 15 percent in the following 12 months.

This time around, the government cannot afford to spend so freely because it is already straining under a debt load that is double the size of the economy.

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