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Tsunami sets off panic but does little damage

HONOLULU (AP) - 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 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 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 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.
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,
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.
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Associated Press writers Mark Niesse and Greg Small in Honolulu,
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.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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