Tsunami causes panic, does little damage

Mere glancing blow to the US and South Pacific aftermath of Chile quake.

tsunami hawaii (photo credit: AP)
tsunami hawaii
(photo credit: AP)
HONOLULU — With a rapt world watching the drama unfold on live television, a tsunami raced across a quarter of the globe on Saturday and set off fears of a repeat of the carnage that caught the world off guard in Asia in 2004.
Japan was still bracing for the prospect of large waves, but the tsunami delivered nothing more than a glancing blow to the US and South Pacific.
The tsunami was spawned by a ferocious magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile that sent waves barreling north across the Pacific at the speed of a jetliner. But Pacific islands had ample time to prepare for the tsunami because the quake struck several thousand miles away.
By the time the tsunami hit Hawaii — a full 16 hours after the quake — officials had already spent the morning ringing emergency sirens, blaring warnings from airplanes and ordering residents to higher ground. The tsunami caused no real damage in Hawaii and the islands were back to paradise by the afternoon.
There were no immediate reports of widespread damage, injuries or deaths in the US or in the Pacific islands, but a tsunami that swamped a village on an island off Chile killed at least five people and left 11 missing.
Waves hit California, but barely registered amid stormy weather. Despite reports of significant problems in coastal areas of California, no injuries or major property damage occurred.
It was still possible that the tsunami would gain strength again as it heads to Japan, and nearly 50 countries and island chains remained under tsunami warnings from Antarctica to Russia. But scientists said the worst threat had passed.
"We dodged a bullet," said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.
The tsunami raised fears that the Pacific could fall victim to the type of killer waves that killed 230,000 people in the Indian Ocean in 2004 the morning after Christmas. During that disaster, there was little to no warning and much confusion about the impending waves.
Officials said the opposite occurred after the Chile quake: They were off in their predictions for the size of the waves and the threat.
"We expected the waves to be bigger in Hawaii, maybe about 50 percent bigger than they actually were," Fryer said. "We'll be looking at that."
In the hours before the tsunami, boats and people near the coast in Hawaii were evacuated. Normally bustling beaches were empty. Hilo International Airport, located along the coast, was closed. Residents lined up at supermarkets to stock up on food and at gas stations.
The Navy moved more than a half dozen vessels to try to avoid damage from the tsunami. A frigate, three destroyers and two smaller vessels were being sent out of Pearl Harbor and a cruiser out of Naval Base San Diego, the Navy said.
The tsunami caused a series of surges in Hawaii that were about 20 minutes apart, and the waves arrived later and smaller than originally predicted. The highest wave at Hilo measured 5.5 feet (1.7 meters) high, while Maui saw some as high as 2 meters (6.5 feet).
Water began pulling away from shore off Hilo Bay on the Big Island just before noon, exposing reefs and sending dark streaks of muddy, sandy water offshore. Waves later washed over Coconut Island, a small park off Hilo's coast.
"We've checked with each county. There was no assessment of any damage in any county, which was quite remarkable," said Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle. "It's just wonderful that nothing happened and no one was hurt or injured."
Officials in Tonga and the Samoas evacuated coastal residents and used radio, television and mobile phone text messages to alert residents.
On the island of Robinson Crusoe near Chile, a huge tsunami wave flooded the village of San Juan Batista, killing at least five people and leaving 11 missing, said Guillermo de la Masa, head of the government emergency bureau for the Valparaiso region.
He said the huge waves also damaged several government buildings on the island.
Sea surges hit 6 1/2 feet at several places in New Zeland. Waters at Tutukaka, a coastal dive spot near the top of the North Island, looked like a pot boiling with the muddy bottom churning up as sea surges built in size through the morning, sucking sea levels below low water marks before surging back.
A nude photo shoot involving scores of people scheduled for the coastline near the capital, Wellington, was canceled by the tsunami threat before any of the volunteers could strip.
Australia warned of the possibility of dangerous waves, strong ocean currents and flooding from Queensland state in the north to Tasmania in the south. No evacuations were ordered.
Past South American earthquakes have had deadly effects across the Pacific.
A tsunami after a magnitude-9.5 quake that struck Chile in 1960, thelargest earthquake ever recorded, killed about 140 people in Japan, 61in Hawaii and 32 in the Philippines. It was about 3.3 to 13 feet (oneto four meters) in height, Japan's Meteorological Agency said.