Tsunami Waves Hit Hawaiian Islands as Fears Wane

Smaller than expected waves surge along shores of Hawaiian Islands.

February 27, 2010, 10:34 AM

Feb. 27, 2010— -- Officials with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) have given the "all clear" for Hawaii more than seven hours after ordering the first statewide evacation of coastal areas in 16 years.

"The wave heights are now below danger levels everywhere," announced PTWC's Gerard Fryer just before 2 p.m. Hawaiian time.

"There is a lingering threat, but no longer reason to keep people out of evacuation zones," he said.

Tsunami waves, smaller than initially expected, surged on Hawaiian beaches today more than 15 hours after being triggered by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Chile.

The PTWC confirmed the tsunami reached Hawaii just after 11:30 a.m. local time, 4:30 p.m. ET. The first wave to hit the Big Island measured 1 meter, or roughly 3 feet.

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle had said waves as high as 7½ feet could strike the Hilo area on the Big Island while much smaller 1½-foot waves were expected in Honolulu Harbor on Oahu.

No major damage or loss of life was immediately reported on any of the Hawaiian Islands.

"It's beginning to look like we escaped by the skin of our teeth," Fryer said. "I think we've dodged a bullet."

After passing Hawaii, the waves continued moving north toward the other Pacific islands and onward toward Asia.

"We will analyze this thing to death," said Fryer of the center's forecast and decision to order evacuations of all coastal areas. "But we think it was right to issue a warning."

The state had significant lead time in preparing for the tsunami, sounding alarms to evacuate coastal areas starting at 6 a.m. local time. It was the state's first widespread evacuation since 1994.

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle said earlier today that the state was "well prepared."

Warning System Helped Hawaiians Prepare Early

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning -- its highest alert -- early this morning, giving residents at least five hours of lead time to prepare for the worst.

Civil defense sirens blared across the state, rousing residents from their sleep, as officials warned damage could occur along the shores of all the Hawaiian Islands.

An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people were told to evacuate flood-prone areas of the Big Island, and by 11 a.m. the streets of downtown Hilo were empty.

Police warned people to stay back at least a quarter-mile from the coast ahead of the waves' arrival, leaving many of the islands' beaches desserted.

Emergency workers went door to door, urging people to heed the sirens, and homeless people who live on the beaches were transported away in buses.

Crowds of people gathered at high vantage points, on rooftops and along roadways, to safely watch the waves approach.

The Federal Aviation Administration closed Hilo International Airport on the low-lying eastern side of Hawaii's Big Island. Honolulu International Airport on Oahu remained open.

As a precautionary measure, the U.S. Navy ordered four ships to leave the port of Pearl Harbor and remain at sea, where they would escape the crush of incoming water that could thrust them against the shore.

The National Weather Service had reported that waves at Marquesas Island on the northern edge of French Polynesia, hundreds of miles south of Hawaii, were smaller than forecast, saying in a tweet "Hawaii impact could be less than initial expectations."

Immediately following the 8.8-magnitude quake off central Chile, 4- to 8-foot waves were reported along the South American coastline.

White House Monitoring Situation in Obama's Home State

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Obama would be receiving regular updates on the situation in Hawaii and Chile in the White House Situation Room.

The president made a statement outside the White House this afternoon, offering his condolences to victims of the Chile quake and assurances that the administration is making preparations for the tsunami.

"We can't control nature, but we can and must be prepared for a disaster if and when it strikes," Obama said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has "pre-deployed assets" in Hawaii, including food, water, generators and other resources ready to roll out as needed.

Tsunami warnings were also issued Saturday for Guam, American Samoa and coastal areas of California and Alaska.

The PTWC forecasted waves of 2 to 3 feet could surge on the California beaches of La Jolla, Santa Monica, Los Angeles and Morro Bay. But many of those beaches only saw waves of less than 2 feet.

Following a 9.5-magnitude quake that struck Chile in 1960, the ensuing tsunami killed more than 200 people, including 61 in Hawaii.

ABC News' Arash Ghadishah, David Herndon and Luis Martinez contributed to this report along with The Associated Press and ABC affiliate KITV in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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