Obama offers condolences, assistance to people of Japan

President Barack Obama listens to a question during a press conference on the White House complex in Washington, Friday, March 11, 2011.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Updated: 1:33pm ET

President Obama on Friday said he was "heartbroken" in the wake of Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami, and pledged to offer "whatever assistance is needed" to the country as it attempts to recover from the disaster, which is thought to have killed hundreds of Japanese residents. 

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"I am heartbroken by this tragedy," Mr. Obama said at a press conference on Friday afternoon, emphasizing that "our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan."

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Noting that the 8.9 magnitude earthquake, one of the most powerful on record in Japanese history, was "a potentially catastrophic disaster," Mr. Obama said that America would provide Japan with assistance while working to ensure the safety of American citizens in the country.

"Japan is, of course, one of our strongest and closest allies," said Mr. Obama, who was briefed on the situation this morning. "This morning I spoke with Prime Minister Kan. On behalf of the American people I conveyed our deepest condolences, especially to victims and their families, and I offered our Japanese friends whatever assistance is needed."

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Emphasizing Japan's strong, technologically advanced economy, Mr. Obama expressed his confidence that the nation would come back from the disaster "stronger than ever -- hopefully with our help." 

"When you see what's happening in Japan you are reminded that for all our differences in culture or language or religion, that ultimately humanity is one. And when we face this kind of natural disaster, whether it's in New Zealand or Haiti or Japan, then you think about your own family and you think of how you would feel if you lost a loved one," he continued.

Mr. Obama reiterated that the U.S. "will provide whatever assistance that they need" in recovery efforts, but said that "the main assistance we're going to be able to provide them is lift capacity" -- particularly in the cleanup process.

(Watch video of his comments at left.)

"Obviously when you have a tsunami like this as well as an earthquake you have huge disruptions both in the infrastructure," he said. "You have boats and houses and cars that are washed into main thoroughfares and that requires heavy equipment and so any assistance that we can provide we will be providing."

The president also said that the White House was "working to account for all our military personnel in Japan" and "assist any and all American citizens who are in the country." He noted that U.S. Embassy personnel in Tokyo had been moved to an off-site location.

Noting minimal damage so far to the U.S. as a result of the disaster, Mr. Obama reminded viewers to "do as you are told" in the event of evacuation warnings.

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"Here in the United States, there hasn't been any major damage so far, but we're taking this very seriously and we are monitoring the situation very closely," he said. "FEMA is fully activated and is coordinating with state and local officials to support these regions as necessary. And let me just stress that if people are told to evacuate, do as you are told."

"Today's events remind us of just how fragile life can be," he continued. "Our hearts go out to our friends in Japan and across the region and we're going to stand with them as they recover and rebuild from this tragedy."