Tsunami sets off panic but does little damage in North America


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.

The tsunami delivered nothing more than a glancing blow to the U.S. and South Pacific, but Japan was still bracing for a direct hit and waves up to 10 feet high. Scientists worried the giant wave could gain strength as it rounds the planet and consolidates.

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 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 islands were back to paradise by the afternoon, but residents endured a severe disruption and scare earlier in the day: Picturesque beaches were desolate, million-dollar homes were evacuated, shops in Waikiki were shut down, and residents lined up at supermarkets to stock up on food and at gas stations.

Others parked their cars along higher ground to watch the ocean turbulence, and one brave soul stayed behind and surfed before being urged by an emergency helicopter pilot to get out of the water.

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. A surfing contest outside San Diego went on as planned.

Despite Internet rumors 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. That’s what happened in 1960, when a deadly tsunami killed dozens of people in Hilo, Hawaii, then went on to claim some 200 lives in Japan.

Hawaii had originally prepared to bear the brunt of the damage, but the tsunami was smaller than anticipated.

“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 overstated their predictions for the size of the waves and the threat.

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.

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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