Tsunami expert: 'We dodged a bullet'

Published February 27, 2010 10:53PM (EST)

A official at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center says Hawaii "dodged a bullet" after a major earthquake sent powerful waves roiling around the Pacific.

It still will be about an hour before officials will be willing to give an all-clear in Hawaii, but there were no immediate reports of major damage around the Pacific rim. just tidal surges that reached up to about seven feet in some island chains.

Gerard Fryer, a geophysist for the tsunami center, defended the decision to urge evacuations of coastal areas, saying "better safe than sorry."

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

HONOLULU (AP) -- A tsunami triggered by an earthquake in Chile swept ashore in Hawaii on Saturday, but the initial waves did not appear to cause significant damage.

The first waves looked more like an extreme fluctuation in the tide than the giant tsunami that Hawaii and the rest of the Pacific Ocean were bracing for after the magnitude-8.8 quake devastated Chile.

The wave began affecting Hilo Bay on the Big Island just before noon local time. Water began pulling away from shore, exposing reefs and sending dark streaks of muddy, sandy water offshore. Water later washed over Coconut Island, a small park off the coast of Hilo.

The tsunami was causing 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 high, while Maui saw some as high as 6 feet.

No major damage was immediately reported, but scientists cautioned the waves would continue into the afternoon.

The tsunami raced across the Pacific Ocean in terrifying force after the quake hit Chile hours earlier, giving Hawaii officials had ample time to get people out of the potential disaster area.

Sirens blared in Hawaii to alert residents to the potential waves. As the waves expected arrival drew near, roads into tourist-heavy Waikiki were closed off. Police patrolled main roads, telling tourists to get off the streets.

Authorities even flew overhead in Cessna blaring warnings to people to get out of the potential danger zone, and residents in Honolulu lined up at supermarkets to stock up on food and batteries. Cars lined up 15 long at several gas stations.

The tsunami fear was not unique to Hawaii.

The waves hit California, but barely registered a notice amid stormy weather. No injuries or property damage are reported. Authorities reported unusual tidal surges to the south of Santa Monica, in San Diego.

A tsunami warning -- the highest alert level -- was in effect for Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Samoa and dozens of other Pacific islands. An advisory -- the lowest level -- includes California, Oregon, Washington state, parts of Alaska, and coastal British Colombia.

The Navy was moving more than a half dozen vessels Saturday 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.

In Tonga, where nine people died in a Sept. 29 tsunami, police and defense forces began evacuating tens of thousands of people from low-lying coastal areas as they warned residents that waves about three feet (one meter) high could wash ashore.

"I can hear the church bells ringing to alert the people," National Disaster Office deputy director Mali'u Takai said.


By Associated Press

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Chile Earthquake Latin America Natural Disasters