Hawaii escapes tsunami damage
Surge of water raced across Pacific, but U.S. islands had warning and the effect was minor.
With a rapt world watching the drama unfold on live television, a tsunami raced Saturday across a quarter of the globe.
The prospect of large waves set off fears of a repeat of the carnage that caught the world off guard in Asia in 2004.
Japan was bracing late Saturday, but the tsunami delivered nothing more than a glancing blow to the U.S. 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 reached Hawaii — a full 16 hours after the quake — officials had 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.
The surge of water raced across the Pacific, setting off alarm sirens in Hawaii, Polynesia and Tonga and prompting warnings across all 53 nations ringing the vast ocean. But there were no immediate reports of widespread damage, injuries or deaths in the U.S. or in the Pacific islands.
However, the jolt set off a tsunami that swamped a village on Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile, killing at least five people and leaving 11 missing. The huge waves also damaged several government buildings on the island.
Pedro Forteza, a pilot who frequently flies to the island, said, “The village was destroyed by the waves, including the historic cemetery. I would say that 20 or 30 percent has disappeared.”
Waves reached 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 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.