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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tsunami Warning Lifted for Hawaii

Honolulu, Hawaii (CNN) -- The tsunami warning is canceled for the state of Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.

"There was no assessment of any damage in any county, which is quite remarkable," said Gov. Linda Lingle, who said witnesses had reported seeing "dramatic surges going on in the ocean."

An official with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said the island chain had "dodged a bullet" after smaller-than-expected waves were reported as a result of a massive earthquake that struck Chile early Saturday.

The first waves of the tsunami were recorded on The Big Island around noon (5 p.m. ET), 16 hours after the Chilean temblor.

Gauges showed water levels rising 3 feet in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii and remaining at that level.

"It's almost the best sort of tsunami you can possibly have, one that's big enough that everyone sees that something happened, but not big enough to cause any damage," said Gerald Fryer, a geophysicist with the warning center.

The arrival of the tsunami waves was preceded by receding water that exposed reefs and churned up silt.

Earlier, Hawaiian residents scrambled to stock up on water, gas and food as sirens pierced the early morning quiet across the islands ahead of the tsunami.

Roads to beaches and other low-lying areas were closed and seaside hotels were moving guests to higher ground.

At Honolulu's Hilton Waikoloa Hotel, guests with cars headed inland and buses moved hundreds of others to a nearby evacuation center.

At supermarkets, residents stocked up on essentials like water and toilet paper in anticipation of the high waters. One sign at a local store limited families to two cases of Spam.

Beaches that would normally be crowded with sunbathers at midday on a Saturday were deserted. Commercial and recreational vessels seeking safe waters lined up a mile off the coast.

County sirens were sounding hourly "to alert residents and visitors to evacuate coastal areas," Hawaii's Civil Defense Division said in a statement.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning, the highest level of a tsunami alert, for the entire Pacific region, including countries as far away as Russia, Japan and Australia.

At the Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Center in Melbourne, Australia, co-director Chris Ryan said tsunami waves were beginning to strike parts of Tasmania "and we expect to begin to see more measurements along the Victoria and New South Wales coasts."

He predicted waves would reach a height of about half a meter (1.6 feet) above normal tide levels, but predicted they would cause little damage.

California and Alaska are under a tsunami advisory.

Tsunami waves came ashore along the Chilean coast shortly after the earthquake, U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Victor Sardina told CNN.

He said the largest was 9 feet near the quake's epicenter. Another wave, 7.7 feet, hit the Chilean town of Talcahuano, according to Eric Lau of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

Video from the town showed one car sitting in a large expanse of water and boats littering the docks.

A large wave on the island of Juan Fernandez -- 400 miles (643 km) off Chile's coast -- killed three people, Provincial Governor Ivan De La Maza said. Ten people were missing.

Navigational buoys in Ventura County, California, sustained minor damage as a result of a 2-foot surge and waves, according to the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center. The Ventura County Fire Department had one report of damage to a resident's dock from the surge.

Speaking Saturday afternoon in Washington, President Obama urged people in Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa, also under a tsunami warning, to prepare.

"We can't control nature, but we can and must be prepared for disaster when it strikes," he said in a brief statement at the White House.

The 13th Air Force, in Hawaii, launched planes carrying loudspeakers to alert people in coastal areas not near sirens to evacuate.

Before the tsunami struck, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle said she had already declared a state of emergency.

In 1960, a tsunami triggered by an earthquake on South America's west coast destroyed much of downtown Hilo and killed 61 people, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The earthquake had a magnitude between 8.25 and 8.5, the USGS said, and the waves in Hilo Bay reached 35 feet, but only 3 to 17 elsewhere.

CNN's Thelma Gutierrez, Mike Ahlers and Carey Bodenheimer contributed to this report.

Tsunami Expected for South Shores

Hawaiians braced for an expected tsunami from a giant earthquake off the coast of Chile, as officials in the state evacuated thousands of residents and tourists to higher ground.

The "Big Island" of Hawaii may face the biggest threat of wave damage, officials on the islands said.

"Residents right on the coast should be concerned and evacuate the coast," especially in places like Hilo Bay on the island of Hawaii, said Barry Hirshorn, a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

The tsunami-warning center's models, based on readings from sensors, are predicting "very rough waves" from six to 10 feet high by the time the tsunami hits Hawaii at about 11:00 a.m. local time, Mr. Hirshorn [cq] said. Any major tsunami waves could be damaging, he said, because "the don't crash on the beach. They streamroll in and they streamroll out."

Evacuations were taking place on low-lying areas throughout the state, including the islands of Maui, Kauai and the most populated island, Oahu, where Honolulu lies.

The last time statewide evacuations were ordered for a tsunami was in 1994, but large waves failed to materialize then.

Some of the most intense preparations were taking place in the greater Hilo area, said Bill Hanson, administrative officer with the Hawaii County Civil Defense on the Big Island. The city of Hilo is situated on the southeastern side of the Big Island, facing the direction from which a tsunami wave as high as 14 feet was projected to hit, Mr. Hanson said.

The city is preparing for major damage if the waves are big. "It's not a matter of if, but when it will happen," Mr. Hanson said.

Federal officials closed the Hilo International Airport at 5:30 a.m. Saturday so the estimated 5,000 residents of coastal subdivisions lying next to it could evacuate more quickly across the tarmac, Mr. Hanson said.

Hotels were also emptying guests out of resorts. At the beachfront Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, officials said they had begun evacuating guests from the 286-room resort before tsunami sirens were scheduled to sound across Hawaii at about 6 a.m. They didn't have an estimate on evacuees, but said the hotel was 75% full.

Hotel staff, meanwhile, said they planned to follow suit afterwards. Desk clerk Marian Somalinog said she planned to evacuate at 9:30 a.m. -- almost two hours ahead of when the wave was expected to hit -- but added that she wasn't overly concerned. "If it's my time to go it's my time to go," Ms. Somalinog said.

The warnings were being taken seriously in Hawaii because the state -- especially around Hilo -- has been hit by giant tsunami waves before. At least three big ones have struck Hilo since World War II, including one in 1946 that killed 163 people and another in 1960 that killed 61, said Mr. Hanson.

The most recent loss of life from a tsunami on the island occurred in 1975 when a big wave killed three campers at a beachfront park, he said.

Authorities were hoping loss of life would be minimized this time, in part because tsunami drills are commonplace on the Big Island and throughout Hawaii. Evacuations were also being ordered on other parts of the island, including the affluent Kohala Kona coast where many large resorts are situated.

Waves there were expected to rise as much as seven feet. Other parts of Hawaii, including Maui and Oahu, were not considered in as great a threat because the Big Island lies in the path of the projected tsunami wave and would take the brunt of its force, Mr. Hanson said.

In Hilo, most of the area's 50,000 residents live on ground high enough to escape much damage from a tsunami. The area of greatest concern is a coastal plain around Hilo Bay where the Keaukaha subdivision by the international airport is located, as well as downtown Hilo.

Elsewhere, the tsunami was disrupting air routes to and from Hawaii. At San Francisco International Airport, delays in flights to airports in Hawaii were being reported as a result of the tsunami preparations.

People should stay away from coastlines for six to 12 hours after the wave to be safe, said Mr. Hirshorn, because the first waves aren't necessarily the biggest