I saw, firsthand, the enormous devastation: Entire towns wiped out, and piles of rubble 30 feet high.
But the third part of this disaster has the potential to be the worst of all, yet the damage is almost invisible. The Fukushima nuclear power plant continues to spew radiation. It's 5,300 miles from Los Angeles -- and still not far enough.
Deformities are showing up in Japanese butterflies. The once-thriving fishing industry near the plant has been shut down. Dozens of species have been labeled too radioactive to eat.
And there's the human toll: 160,000 families have been forced from their radioactive homes, many still paying their mortgages even though they'll likely never live there again.
Fukushima is an enormous problem that's getting bigger.
Nuclear Engineer Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, confirmed that ocean currents are carrying the radioactive water to the West Coast.
"There are several hundred tons of radioactive water that are pouring into the ocean at the site every day," Makhijani said.
According to a study published in the Journal Deep Sea Research 1, it will begin arriving this March. But Makhijani says there's no need to panic. The radiation will be diluted, and levels found on the West Coast are very low and not considered dangerous so far. But the question is, will we really know?
"I think we should be doing a better monitoring of food. I don't think the EPA and FDA are doing a good enough job," Makhijani said.
The scariest part of Fukushima is not what has already happened; it's what could still happen. Every day is a desperate effort to keep the plant from melting down. What's distressing for many is the Japanese government is not overseeing the cleanup.
The government has requested that Tokyo Electric and Power or TEPCO, be in charge of the cleanup. It is a private, for profit, company.
Japanese Nuclear Engineer Yastel Yamada came to America to shine a light on what he feels is a flawed approach. He says TEPCO is over their heads.
"The cleanup job is too large for their capability," Yamada said.
Yamada is one of many experts who say this is a bad solution, and that a meltdown is still possible. Dr. Jimmy Hara, from Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and professor of clinical family medicine at UCLA, agrees.
"It's like the fox overseeing the chicken coop, and it's a huge problem," Hara said.
Makhijani says TEPCO and the Japanese government have refused international help.
Fukushima is potentially the biggest ticking time bomb in human history. The damaged plant is in no condition to withstand another massive earthquake or tsunami. The original 19-foot sea wall was shattered when the tsunami struck and provided little protection. The tsunami flooded the plant, cut off power, and the meltdown was underway.
The plant's defenses today are far less.
Just last week, Dr. David Suzuki, one of Canada's top environmental scientists, stunned the audience when he described what will happen if a massive quake did hit today.
"It's bye bye Japan, and everybody on the West Coast of North America should evacuate," Suzuki said. "Now if that isn't terrifying, I don't know what is."