Tsunami spawned by massive Chile earthquake rushes ashore in Hawaii on its way to Asia

By Jaymes Song, AP
Saturday, February 27, 2010

Quake-triggered tsunami rushes ashore in Hawaii

HONOLULU — A tsunami triggered by the Chilean earthquake sent a surge of water ashore in Hawaii, California and islands in the South Pacific on Saturday as the waves continued onto Alaska and parts of Asia.

There were no immediate reports of widespread damage, injuries or deaths in the U.S. 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.

In Hawaii, 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.

The tsunami caused a series of surges 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).

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center canceled its tsunami warning for Hawaii.

“We dodged a bullet,” said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the warning center. He said there was the possibility that the tsunami would gain strength again as it heads to Japan.

There were no immediate reports of widespread damage around the Pacific Rim, just tidal surges that reached up to about seven feet in some island chains. Waves hit California, but barely registered amid stormy weather. No injuries or major property damage were reported.

Nearly 50 countries and island chains remained under tsunami warnings, from Antarctica to Russia’s far northeast.

The tsunami raced across the Pacific Ocean at the speed of a jetliner after the quake hit Chile hours earlier. Unlike other tsunamis in recent years in which residents had little warning, emergency officials had ample time to get people out of the potential disaster area.

Sirens blared in Hawaii to alert residents to the potential waves. Emergency officials used buses to ferry people in tourist-heavy Waikiki away from the shore. Authorities even flew overhead in Cessnas blaring warnings to people to get out of the potential danger zone

In Tonga, where nine people died in a Sept. 29 tsunami, police evacuated tens of thousands of people from the coast.

In Samoa, where 183 people died in the same tsunami, authorities used radio, television and mobile phone text messages to alert residents. Thousands of people Sunday morning remained in the hills above the coasts on the main island of Upolu.

Island chains closer to the epicenter in Chile appeared to have sustained more damage than ones farther away.

On the island of Robinson Crusoe, 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.

In French Polynesia, tsunami waves damaged parts of the coast and tossed around boats. The biggest waves were in Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, where they reached more than 13 feet (4 meters).

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.

In Hawaii, in the hours before the tsunami, boats and people near the coast were evacuated. Normally bustling beaches were empty. Hilo International Airport, located along the coast, was closed for a time. Residents lined up to stock up on food and gas.

The Navy was moving 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 ships will be safer out at sea than if they were tied to piers where they could be banged around by the waves, the Navy said.

A tsunami wave can travel at up to 600 mph, said Jenifer Rhoades, tsunami program manager at the National Weather Service.

Some Pacific nations in the warning area were heavily damaged by a tsunami last year.

The Sept. 29 tsunami, created by a magnitude-8.3 earthquake, killed 34 people in American Samoa along with the deaths in Samoa and Tonga. Scientists later said that wave was 46 feet (14 meters) high.

The tsunami warning center said the waves reached the islands so quickly residents had only about 10 minutes to respond to its alert.

During the devastating December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, there was little to no warning and much confusion about the impending waves. The tsunami eradicated entire coastal communities the morning after Christmas, killing 230,000 people.

In Hilo, officials cordoned off the first three blocks next to the beach. A few people watched the still ocean as a whale swam off the coast, but streets were mostly empty as tsunami sirens blared. Gas stations had long lines, some 10 cars deep.

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle declared a state of emergency. She said leprosy patients from the Kalaupapa settlement on Molokai have been moved to higher ground before the waves arrived.

Past South American earthquakes have had deadly effects across the Pacific.

A tsunami after a magnitude-9.5 quake that struck Chile in 1960, the largest earthquake ever recorded, killed about 140 people in Japan, 61 in Hawaii and 32 in the Philippines. It was about 3.3 to 13 feet (one to four meters) in height, Japan’s Meteorological Agency said.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK quoted earthquake experts as saying the tsunami would likely be tens of centimeters (inches) high when it reaches the country. A tsunami of 28 centimeters (11 inches) was recorded after a magnitude-8.4 earthquake near Chile in 2001.

Seismologist Fumihiko Imamura, of Japan’s Tohoku University, told NHK that residents near ocean shores should not underestimate the power of a tsunami even though they may be generated by quakes on the other side of the ocean.

“There is the possibility that it could reach Japan without losing its strength,” he said.

Associated Press writers Mark Niesse, David Briscoe and Greg Small in Honolulu, Elliot Spagat in San Diego, Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Chris Havlik in Phoenix, Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, Eric Talmadge in Tokyo, Alan Clendenning in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tiphaine Issele in Papette, French Polynesia, Pauline Jelinek in Washington and Charmaine Noronha in Toronto contributed to this report.

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