On 11 March 2011, Japan was struck by an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 – the biggest in the nation's recorded history and one of the five most powerful recorded ever around the world. The epicentre was located off the coast of the north-eastern Miyagi prefecture and it was felt 373km (232 miles) away in the capital Tokyo. The six-minute-long tremor and its thousands of aftershocks shook buildings across much of northern Japan and the nation's capital.

At sea, a powerful tsunami was building up, ready to engulf towns along much of Japan's north-eastern coast. Within half and hour of the earthquake, towns lining the shore were flattened by the massive waves. Successive waves up to four to five metres high crashed through homes and fields and washed away fleeing vehicles. At its highest, the tsunami reached over 40 metres in Miyako, Iwate prefecture.

Five years after the tsunami, huge swathes of north-eastern Japan are still barren wastelands. These interactive photos, taken five years apart, show towns in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, and the same areas today. Move your mouse across the images to compare them.

Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
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Natori city in Miyagi prefecture is seen being engulfed by a huge wave as the tsunami hits on 11 March 2011. The same area is seen on 18 February 2016. (Kyodo/Reuters)
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
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Natori city in Miyagi prefecture is seen in these images taken on 11 March 2011 (shortly after the earthquake and tsunami) and 15 February 2016. (Kyodo/Reuters)
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
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Higashimatsushima city in Miyagi prefecture is seen in these images taken on 12 March 2011 and 3 March 2016. (Kyodo/Reuters)
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
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Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture is seen in these images taken on 17 March 2011 and 17 January 2016. (Kyodo/Reuters)
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
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Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture is seen in these images taken on 12 March 2011 and 16 February 2016. (Kyodo/Reuters)
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
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Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture is seen in these images taken on 15 March 2011 and 28 February 2015. (Kyodo/Reuters)

At the latest count, 15,894 people have been confirmed killed by the earthquake and tsunami, and 2,562 are still not accounted for, according to a Japanese police report released on 10 February 2016.

More than 65% of casualties were elderly men and women who were not able to run to higher ground or swim to safety.

Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
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Yamada town in Iwate prefecture is seen in these images taken on 17 March 2011 and 3 February 2016. (Kyodo/Reuters)
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
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The tsunami-flattened town of Minamisanriku in Miyagi prefecture is seen on 13 March 2011 (two days after the tsunami) and on 24 February 2015. (Kyodo/Reuters)
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
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The tsunami-devastated local government office in Minamisanriku town in Miyagi prefecture is seen in these images taken on 13 March 2011 and 25 February 2015. (Kyodo/Reuters)
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
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Rikuzentakata city in Iwate prefecture, is seen in these images taken on 5 April 2011 and 16 February 2016. (Kyodo/Reuters)

The tsunami also hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, triggering a meltdown that also forced tens of thousands to evacuate an area 20km radius around the reactor. After the quake and tsunami struck, three reactors melted down and radiation spread widely across north-eastern towns, forcing 150,000 people to flee their homes. Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co, known as Tepco, managed to avert the worst scenario by pumping water, much of it from the sea, into Daiichi's damaged reactors and spent fuel pools.

After several scares, the reactors were stabilised by December of the same year. Five years on, however, the operator continues to struggle with the crippled reactor. Tepco has began the first steps in the long and hazardous process of decommissioning the facility, extracting four fuel rods from their container for later removal. Decommissioning four reactors is likely to take decades and cost tens of billions of dollars.

Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
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Shinchi town in Fukushima prefecture is seen in these images taken on 12 March 2011 (the day after the tsunami) and 2 March 2016. (Kyodo/Reuters)
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
Japan earthquake tsunami then and now
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An aerial view shows Naraha town, near the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, on 26 February 2012 and 12 February 2016 (note the bags of radiation-contaminated soil). (Kyodo/Reuters)

According to the World Bank, the economic cost has totalled up to £166 bn ($235bn, €214bn), making it the most expensive disaster in world history.