HONOLULU — Tsunami waves swamped Hawaii beaches before dawn Friday but didn’t cause any major damage after devastating Japan and sparking evacuations as far away as the U.S. western coast.
Kauai was the first of the Hawaiian islands hit by the tsunami, which was caused by an earthquake in Japan, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said. Water rushed ashore in Honolulu, swamping the beach in Waikiki and surging over a break wall in the world-famous resort but stopping short of the area’s high-rise hotels.
Waves about 7 feet high were recorded on Maui, and 3 feet in Oahu and Kauai. Officials warned that the waves would continue and could become larger, and a scientist at the tsunami warning center said there was likely damage to mooring facilities and piers.
“We called this right. This evacuation was necessary,” said geophysicist Gerard Fryer in Hawaii. “There’s absolutely no question, this was the right thing to do.”
Roadways and beaches were empty as the tsunami struck the state, which had hours to prepare. Sirens sounded throughout the night, and residents in coastal areas were sent to refuge areas at community centers and schools while tourists were moved to higher floors of hotels. People waited in long lines stocking up on gas, bottled water, canned food and generators.
“I’ve been up all night and I’m supposed to go to work today. I’m waiting to see if I’ll be working and if I can get to work,” said Sabrina Skiles, who spent the night at her husband’s office in downtown Kahului in Maui. Their home, across the street from the beach, was in a mandatory evacuation zone. “They’re saying the worst is over right now but we keep hearing reports saying ‘don’t go anywhere. You don’t want to go too soon,’” Skiles said.
The tsunami, spawned by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan, slammed the eastern coast of Japan, sweeping away boats, cars, homes and people as widespread fires burned out of control. It raced across the Pacific at 500 mph — as fast as a jetliner — though the waves roll into shore at normal speeds.
Waves are predicted to hit the western coast of the United States between 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. EST Friday. Evacuations were ordered in parts of Washington and Oregon, and fishermen in Crescent City, Calif., fired up their crab boats and left the harbor to ride out an expected swell. A tsunami in 1964 killed 11 people in Crescent City.
President Barack Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is ready to come to the aid of Hawaii and West Coast states as needed. Coast Guard cutter and aircraft crews were positioning themselves to be ready to conduct response and survey missions as soon as conditions allow.
Scientists warned that the first tsunami waves are not always the strongest. The threat can last for several hours and people should watch out for strong currents.
U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Ken Hudnut said residents along the coast should heed calls for evacuation if local emergency planners order them.
“Do the right thing,” Hudnut said. “Be safe.”
It was the second time in a little over a year that Hawaii and the U.S. West coast faced the threat of a massive tsunami. A magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile spawned warnings on Feb. 27, 2010, but the waves were much smaller than predicted and almost no damage was reported.
Scientists acknowledged they overstated the threat but defended their actions, saying they took the proper steps and learned the lessons of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed thousands of people who didn’t get enough warning.
Many islands in the Pacific evacuated after the warnings were issued, but officials told residents to go home because the waves weren’t as bad as expected.
In Guam, the waves broke two U.S. Navy submarines from their moorings, but tug boats corralled the subs and brought them back to their pier. No damage was reported to Navy ships in Hawaii.
But the size of Hawaii’s islands is expected to amplify the waves, which will crash hardest against harbors and inlets.
“They’re going to be coming in with high currents, they can pick up boulders from the sea floor … they can pick up cars, they can pick up fuel tanks, those things become battering rams and so it just amplifies the destruction in a big tsunami,” said Chip McCreery, director for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
Waves almost 5 feet high hit Midway, a tiny island in the North Pacific about 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu.
The warnings issued by the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center cover an area stretching the entire western coast of the United States and Canada from the Mexican border to Chignik Bay in Alaska.
In the Canadian pacific coast province of British Columbia, authorities evacuated marinas, beaches and other areas.
In Alaska, a dozen small communities along the Aleutian Island chain were on alert, but there were no reports of damage from a wave just over 5 feet.
Officials in two coastal Washington counties used an automated phone alert system, phoning residents on the coast and in low-lying areas and asking them to move to higher ground.
“We certainly don’t want to cry wolf,” said Sheriff Scott Johnson of Washington’s Pacific County. “We just have to hope we’re doing the right thing based on our information. We don’t want to be wrong and have people hurt or killed.
In Oregon, sirens blasted in some coastal communities and at least one hotel was evacuated in the northern part of the state. Restaurants, gift shops and other beachfront business stayed shuttered, and schools up and down the coast were closed.
Latin American governments ordered islanders and coastal residents to head for higher ground. First affected would be Chile’s Easter Island, in the remote South Pacific, about 2,175 miles west of the capital of Santiago, where people planned to evacuate the only town. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency and ordered people on the Galapagos Islands and the coast of the mainland to seek higher ground.
The tsunami warning was issued Friday at 3:31 a.m. EST. Sirens were sounded about 30 minutes later in Honolulu alerting people in coastal areas to evacuate. About 70 percent of Hawaii’s 1.4 million population resides in Honolulu, and as many as 100,000 tourists are in the city on any given day.
On Friday, the Honolulu International Airport remained open but seven or eight jets bound for Hawaii have turned around, including some originating from Japan, the state Department of Transportation said. All harbors are closed and vessels were ordered to leave the harbor.
Honolulu’s Department of Emergency Management has created refuge areas at community centers and schools, and authorities on Kauai island have opened 11 schools to serve as shelters for those who have left tsunami inundation zones.
A small 4.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Big Island just before 5 a.m. EST, but there were no reports of damages and the quakes weren’t likely related, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey said.
Dennis Fujimoto said early Friday that the mood is calm but concerned on the island of Kauai while people readying for the tsunami.
Long lines formed at gas stations and people went to Wal-Mart to stock up on supplies.
“You got people walking out of there with wagonloads of water,” he said.
The worst big wave to strike the U.S. was a 1946 tsunami caused by a magnitude of 8.1 earthquake near Unimak Islands, Alaska, that killed 165 people, mostly in Hawaii. In 1960, a magnitude 9.5 earthquake in southern Chile caused a tsunami that killed at least 1,716 people, including 61 people in Hilo. It also destroyed most of that city’s downtown. On the U.S. mainland, a 1964 tsunami from a 9.2 magnitude earthquake in Prince William Sound, Alaska, struck Washington State, Oregon and California. It killed 128 people, including 11 in Crescent City, Calif.