updated 11/14/2005 7:22:38 PM ET 2005-11-15T00:22:38

A strong earthquake shook northern Japan early Tuesday, and small tsunamis struck towns on Japan’s northeastern coast about 217 miles from the epicenter. There were no immediate reports of damage.

The quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 6.9, hit at 6:39 a.m. and was centered off the east coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu, according to the U.S. Geological Survey and Japan’s Meteorological Agency.

Tsunami waves measuring 12 to 19 inches hit the city of Ofunato, on the coast of Iwate prefecture, the agency said.

Smaller tsunamis 4 inches to 12 inches high hit at least four other coastal towns in Iwate, Aomori and Miyagi provinces.

Tsunami waves — those generated by earthquakes — are often barely noticeable in the ocean but can rise to great heights once they arrive at shore.

The agency said larger tsunamis could reach coastlines on Japan’s Pacific Coast in the provinces of Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima and Hokkaido, and warned residents to stay away from the coast.

Ross Stein, a geophysicist with the USGS in Menlo Park, Calif., said the swell amounted to “a surfable tsunami.”

Coastal homes ordered to evacuate
About 400 homes along the Iwate’s coast have been ordered to evacuate, NHK reported, but there were no immediate reports of damage.

The quake hit at a depth of about 15 miles and was centered off the coast of Sanriku in northern Japan, 330 miles east of Tokyo, the U.S. agency said.

Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries because it sits atop four tectonic plates. A powerful 7.2-magnitude earthquake shook northeastern Japan in August, injuring at least 59 people, triggering landslides, damaging buildings and causing widespread power outages.

There was no destructive Pacific Ocean-wide tsunami threat following the earthquake, based on historical quake and tsunami data, according to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

However, earthquakes as large as Tuesday’s can generate local tsunamis capable of causing destruction along coastlines within 60 miles of the epicenter, according to the center.

The quake struck 215 miles east of the Japanese coastline, according to the U.S. agency.

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