Tsunami Hits Hawaii, Causes Minimal Damage

With a computer graphic showing the possible path of tsunami waves from an earthquake in Chile, Dr. Charles McCreery speaks on the phone at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010 in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. The State of Hawaii is under a tsunami warning after an 8.8 magnitude earthquake rattled Chile today. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia) AP Photo/Marco Garcia

Last Updated 12:12 a.m. ET

After a day of several tide fluctuations along the Hawaii coast, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center lifted a warning triggered by a massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile Saturday morning.

While evacuations were ordered and roads into tourist-heavy Waikiki closed off, officials said the state escaped unscathed, with initial waves looking more like an extreme fluctuation in the tide than a giant tsunami. A tsunami warning was canceled for Hawaii by 2 p.m.

An official from the center gave an optimistic view about the tsunami while it was causing dramatic tide fluctuations in the Aloha State.

"I think we dodged a bullet," Gerard Fryer, a geophysist for the tsunami center of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, which issues warnings to almost every country around the Pacific Rim and to most of the Pacific island states, told reporters in Hawaii Saturday afternoon. "It's sort of the best tsunami you think you can have."

In California, Oregon, Washington state, parts of Alaska and coastal British Colombia, tsunami advisories, the lowest level of warning, were issued, and the West Coast barely felt any effects from the tsunami.

"Anti-climatic. And you can print that," said Dan Berg, assistant harbormaster in Ketchikan, Alaska.

But other areas in the Pacific Rim are still in the bullet's path. Japan's Meteorological Agency warned that a "major" tsunami of up to 9 feet could hit northern coastal areas early Sunday morning.

The tsunami hit Hawaii around noon local time. The extent of the damage was not immediately clear, but the effects of the tsunami were obvious, 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.

CBS News Affiliate KGMB-TV in Honolulu reported a figure from the National Weather Service that the water off Hilo Bay on the Big Island fluctuated by 3 feet in 20 minutes.

KGMB-TV reported that the water at Hilo Bay started to recede about 45 minutes after the tsunami was expected to hit the Hawaii coast. The television station reported that the first sign of the impending tsunami was when the tide dramatically dropped by about a half foot, exposing rocks.

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 high, while Maui saw some as high as 6.5 feet.

"We clearly had a tsunami in the water, and we had to evacuate," Fryer said.

CBS "Early Show" Weatherman Dave Price was vacationing in Hawaii Saturday. Kaaumoana Tozer, a staff member at the Four Seasons hotel, was helping the hotel evacuate. He had lived through the same horror many Hawaiians feared because he was in Phuket, Thailand, for the Christmas Indonesian Tsunami of 2004.

"It's not a game," Tozer said. "I saw three SUV's stacked on two-story buildings in Phuket Island, and it's like literally bombs going off all along the coast."

Gov. Linda Lingle said no damage was reported in any county. "It's just wonderful that nothing happened and no one was hurt or injured," she said.

More coverage of the earthquake in Chile

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The first waves in Hawaii were expected to hit shortly after 11 a.m. local time Saturday (4 p.m. Eastern time) and measure roughly 8 feet at Hilo. A look at the shoreline at that time showed little abnormal wave activity, but officials continued to urge caution.

Honolulu resident Alice Miller, 58, said the day of a preparation for the tsunami reminded her of what she might need if a natural disaster were to hit the islands.

"It's a good thing to remind us to store up," Miller said.

Unlike other tsunamis in recent years in which residents had little warning, emergency officials along the Pacific on Saturday had hours to prepare and decide on getting people out of the potential disaster area.

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

On several South Pacific islands hit by a tsunami last fall, police evacuated tens of thousands of coastal residents.

The Hilo International Airport, located along the coast, was closed, and people filled a local SackNSave grocery store, where shelves with water were mostly empty, save a few bottles.

"They are buying everything we got," said clerk Memory Phillik.

Cars lined up 15 long at several gas stations.

In Honolulu, Teney Takahashi, 70, loaded three days of food and water into his car trunk, preparing to leave his prime beachfront home in the Wailupe neighborhood with his wife and two dogs. They had wanted to be gone before any tsunami waves might arrive and planned to go to a friend's house just up the hill.

"You don't have to go far," Takahashi said. "All you got to do is stay out of the surge height."

In Waikiki, where police and fire trucks went through the streets, every TV showed the news Saturday morning. On the horizon were hundreds of boats that headed out of port to ride out the potential waves. All traffic was headed out of the city. Those without vehicles hunkered down.

Among people visiting in Waikiki, there was some nervous laughter and joking about preparing for a possible emergency while on vacation.

"I would not have written this on the list of 99 things to do in Hawaii," said Stephanie Barro, of Austin, Texas, who was waiting for a convenience store to open to buy water and snacks. "Instead of sitting on the beach, I'll be up on the 13th floor looking at the beach."

KGMB-TV reported throughout the tsunami's surges how well the warning center predicted the tsunami's behavior as a series of big waves, rather than a wall of water and "a lot like a fast high tide," as Charles McCreery, the director of the center, said.

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Tsunami warnings - the highest alert level - are also in effect for Guam, American Samoa and dozens of other Pacific islands, as well as Australia and New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines and Russia.

In Hawaii, boats and people near the coast were being evacuated. Hilo International Airport, located along the coast, was closed.

"These are dangerous, dangerous events," said John Cummings, spokesman for the Honolulu Emergency Management Department.

CBS News Pentagon correspondent David Martin reports that the U.S. Navy had sent ships to evacuate four low-lying facilities - one of them a hospital - on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

The Navy moved more than a half dozen vessels Saturday to try to avoid damage from the tsunami.

A frigate, three destroyers and two smaller vessels were sent out of Pearl Harbor and a cruiser out of Naval Base San Diego. At the Pentagon, Navy spokesman Lt. Myers Vasquez said the ships will be safer out on the sea than if they were tied to piers where they could be banged around by the waves, meaning damage to the vessels as well as the piers.

Elsewhere in Hawaii, many private boats also left their docks to ride out the tsunami at sea.

In a statement, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said officials were closely monitoring the situation: "FEMA stands ready to assist should a request for assistance be made, and does have pre-deployed assets in Hawaii, including food, water, generators and other resources. We urge all individuals to follow the direction provided by local officials."

(CBS)

Authorities closing beaches in Northern California's San Mateo County, including beaches in Pacifica and Half Moon Bay, where the National Weather Service has predicted strong currents and choppy waves for several hours starting around 1 p.m. PT.

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

"I can hear the church bells ringing to alert the people," National Disaster Office deputy director Mali'u Takai said. "We will move up to 50,000 people to the interior and away from the coasts."

Waves 6 feet above normal hit near Concepcion, Chile, shortly after the quake.

A tsunami warning - the highest alert level - was also in effect for Guam, American Samoa, Samoa and dozens of other Pacific islands. An advisory - the lowest level - has been extended to include Oregon, Washington state, parts of Alaska, and coastal British Colombia.

The White House kept close watch on the Chilean quake. Presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs said the U.S. stands ready to help the Chilean people "in this hour of need."

American Samoa Lt. Gov. Aitofele Sunia activated emergency services and called on residents of shoreline villages to move to higher ground. Police in Samoa issued a nationwide alert to begin coastal evacuations. The tsunami is expected to reach the islands Saturday morning.

In French Polynesia, tsunami waves up to 6 feet high swept ashore, but no damage was immediately reported.

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Meanwhile, disaster management officials in Fiji said they have been warned to expect waves of as high as 7.5 feet to hit the northern and eastern islands of the archipelago and the nearby Tonga islands.

A lower-grade tsunami advisory was in effect for the coast of California and an Alaskan coastal area from Kodiak to Attu islands. Tsunami Center officials said they did not expect the advisory would be upgraded to a warning.

Waves were likely to hit Asian, Australian and New Zealand shores within 24 hours of Saturday's quake. A tsunami wave can travel at up to 600 mph, said Jenifer Rhoades, tsunami program manager at the National Weather Service in Washington, DC.

McCreery said he didn't know how big the waves will be, but expected them to be the largest to hit Hawaii since 1964.

"If you're in an evacuation zone, police or civil defense volunteers would instruct you to evacuate, or instructions will come out over the radio and TV," said Shelly Ichishita, spokeswoman for the state's civil defense.

If coastal areas are evacuated, visitors in Waikiki would be moved to higher floors in their hotels, rather than moved out of the tourist district, which could cause gridlock.

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

On Sept. 29, a tsunami spawned by a magnitude-8.3 earthquake killed 34 people in American Samoa, 183 in Samoa and nine in Tonga. Scientists later said that wave was 46 feet high.

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.

That tsunami was about 3.3 to 13 feet in height, Japan's Meteorological Agency said.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK quoted earthquake experts as saying the tsunami would likely be tens of inches high and reach Japan in about 22 hours.

A tsunami of 11 inches was recorded after a magnitude-8.4 earthquake near Chile in 2001.

The Meteorological Agency said it was still investigating the likelihood of a tsunami in Japan and did not issue a formal coastal warning.

Australia, meanwhile, was put on a tsunami watch.

The Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning Saturday night for a "potential tsunami threat" to New South Wales state, Queensland state, Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island.

Any potential wave would not hit Australia until Sunday morning local time, it said.

New Zealand officials warned that "non-destructive" tsunami waves of less than three feet could hit the entire east coast of the country's two main islands and its Chatham Islands territory, some 300 miles east of New Zealand.

The Philippine Institute of Vulcanology and Seismology issued a low-level alert saying people should await further notice of a possible tsunami. It did not recommend evacuations.

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.

(NOAA/USGS/AP)
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