As horrific as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and across the Pacific has been, as much misery as has been caused, the silver lining is that, if an 8.9 is going to strike, Japan is where you would, absent someplace completely uninhabited, want it to hit, for lack of a better term. Japan is among, if not the, best on the planet at dealing with both types of disasters, both in damage prevention and knowing what to do after the damage is done. The talk is that a death toll could reach 1,300; it currently stands at 680 as confirmed by NHK World; some reports have the number higher by a couple hundred.
Were that to have hit most anywhere else on Earth, that death toll would be much, much higher than that. The Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 struck hardest in Indonesia, which has drastically less capable infrastructure. The estimated death toll there eventually was estimated at 230,000.
Obviously, 680 dead is 680 too many. But it's a whole lot better than 230,000.
And then there's the fact that Japan has some sturdy ground. This is critical in an earthquake, as Port Royal, Jamaica learned on June 7, 1692.
Back then, Port Royal was, unofficially, Jamaica's capital. It was also a pirate capital; its location made it easy to reach a number of choke points along the Caribbean side of the Atlantic. This is historically a popular way for pirates to choose a base of operations: find narrow passages where all the shipping boats have no choice but to traverse, and set up camp nearby. Somalia and Singapore are two other such locations. Four different well-defended ports also served to make it a safe haven. If a pirate was being chased and made it to Port Royal, the chase was as good as over.
With such a population, Port Royal acquired a reputation for wealth and depravity, earning it the nickname "the wickedest city in the world".
Port Royal had one other weakness: the city sat on a large sand spit just beyond Kingston, upon which, as the city grew, they would place more and more buildings of heavier and heavier weight. Port Royal was only populated with about 6,500 people, but that was still a pretty good size for that time period. This was the situation when the earthquake struck, measured at 7.5. A recovered pocket watch from the site puts the time at 11:43 AM.
When sand, or any kind of soil, is shaken up such that it loses stiffness and stress resistance, a process called liquefaction occurs, in which the ground begins to act like a liquid. Loose sand, combined with large quantities of nearby water, provide for a quite profound liquefaction. The multitude of heavy objects that made up Port Royal suddenly had no substantial foundation.
And so 33 acres of the city, two-thirds of the town, sank into the ground, buildings, ports, riches, pirates and all. According To Robert Renny's 1807 book An History Of Jamaica, "All the wharves sunk at once, and in the space of two minutes, nine-tenths of the city were covered with water, which was raised to such a height, that it entered the uppermost rooms of the few houses which were left standing. The tops of the highest houses, were visible in the water, and surrounded by the masts of vessels, which had been sunk along with them". When the earthquake stopped, so did the liquifaction, and the sand became solid again, trapping all that had sunk. This distressed the survivors on two fronts: first, the resolidification made rescue and recovery efforts almost impossible, and second, they weren't done looting the dead bodies yet. As one report recalled, "The Dead were robbed of what they had about them, some stript, others searched, their Pockets pick'd, their Fingers cut off for their Rings, their Gold Buttons taken out of their Shirts." (People liked capitalizing nouns back then for some reason.)
There was a tsunami as well, but by then it was overkill. Port Royal was effectively finished as the capital of Jamaica; Kingston would over the years progressively take over.
Because of Port Royal's reputation, and due to the time period, some were quick to call the disaster divine retribution, particularly by one pastor, Emmanuel Heath, who also lived at Port Royal and claimed his home made it through unscathed. The Jamaica Council recommended that every June 7th thereafter "be kept and observed by all the inhabitants of this Island, an an anniversary day of fasting and humiliation."
Five years later, a visitor described the remaining inhabitants as having gone right back to normal, stting that the locals "regard nothing but Money, and value not how they get it."
If the original earthquake was a warning from God, God must have decided Port Royal just didn't get it, and acted accordingly. Disease from the dead bodies, a fire in 1703, a hurricane in 1722, another fire in 1750, another hurricane in 1774, another fire in 1815, a cholera outbreak in 1850, and finally another liquefaction-causing earthquake in 1907 combined to essentially wipe the town off the map. It now sees importance primarily in archaeology.
Approximately 5,000 died in Port Royal in 1692, from either the earthquake itself (about 2,000) or the immediate aftermath (about 3,000). Compare to Japan's astronomically higher population base, and you start to get an idea of just how well prepared Japan was.