Tsunami: Pacific nations wait, and exhale


TOKYO, Japan — Dozens of countries in the Pacific region spent an anxious 24 hours bracing for massive waves after Saturday’s magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile sent a tsunami coursing halfway around the world.

The threat of more devastation attracted blanket TV coverage, as millions, from New Zealand to Russia’s far east, waited to learn whether they would be spared or forced to flee their homes.

But almost a day after Chile was shaken to its core, it appeared that that most coastlines standing in the waves’ path had emerged unscathed. Warnings were lifted across the region, although Japan remained in a state of alert well into Sunday evening local time.

As Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, declared a “state of catastrophe” — amid a death toll of at least 300 — the tsunami continued its journey across the Pacific Ocean at speeds some experts compared to that of a commercial jetliner.

In contrast to the devastating tsunami that killed 230,000 people in the Indian Ocean in 2004, the 53 countries at greatest risk from this weekend’s waves were given hours to prepare for the worst.

Alarms sounded in Hawaii, Polynesia, Tonga and other Pacific islands, and warnings were issued in countries as far apart as Japan, Russia, the Philippines and Indonesia.

The initial panic also spread over a large swath of the western Pacific, including coastal areas of California in the south, through Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, to Alaska.

Slideshow: scenes of destruction

In Japan, officials ordered 540,000 households along the north Pacific coast to evacuate to higher ground amid warnings that the waves could reach around three meters in height.

This evening the country’s meteorological agency stopped short of giving the all clear, even after the earliest waves were smaller than expected.

In the end a tsunami of about 90 centimeters arrived in Nemuro, about 600 miles north of Tokyo, along with a much smaller surge on the coast of Minamitori, about 1,200 miles south of the capital. Later, a slightly bigger wave came ashore in Kuji in the north, but there were no reports of damage.

There was wide disruption to train services and some roads were closed, but the Tokyo Marathon went ahead.

Authorities later downgraded their warnings, but the prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, cautioned against complacency. “Carelessness could be the biggest enemy,” he told reporters. “In the past, even when the waves weren’t so big, 2-meter-high tsunami have caused extensive

Elsewhere, the lifting of alerts prompted a collective sigh of relief.

The waves that eventually washed ashore in Hawaii were much smaller than at first feared, leading the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to cancel its warning with the news that the islands’ coasts had survived intact.

Hours earlier, the U.S. Navy had moved vessels out of Pearl Harbor, while Hilo International Airport, located near the shore, was temporarily closed. Police patrolling Waikiki Beach told tourists to leave the streets, while residents filed into supermarkets to stock up on food, water and other essentials.

Tens of thousands of people living near coastlines on in the southern Pacific islands were evacuated, including in Tonga, where nine people died in a tsunami last September.

While territories spanning thousand of miles started to return to normal, it emerged that not everyone had been as fortunate.

Officials on the island of Robinson Crusoe said five people had been killed and 11 other were missing after a powerful wave swamped the village of San Juan Baptista.

Despite an overnight alert covering most of Australia’s east coast and eastern Tasmania, there were no initial reports of damage. Similar reassurances followed from New Zealand, where hundreds of people living on the east coast had been evacuated to higher ground and ships
steered to deeper, safer waters.

As a relieved Hawaii contemplated what might have been, Japan prepared for a possible onslaught.

In Fujisawa, a small city on Japan’s Pacific coast, residents were told not to venture near the area’s long stretch of coastline, a popular spot among weekend surfers.

The renewed threat of large waves crashing into Japan’s coast came just hours after the meteorological agency had lifted another tsunami warning in the wake of a powerful undersea earthquake off the southern coast of Okinawa.

Some in Japan remember the last time a massive quake in Chile sent waves across the Pacific. In May 1960, a magnitude 9.5 quake — the largest on record — unleashed a wall of water that killed 1,655 people, including 140 people in Japan’s far north, 61 in Hawaii and 32 in the Philippines.

Fumihiko Imamura, a seismologist at Tohoku University, told national broadcaster NHK that people living near the coast should stay alert, even though the tsunami had originated thousands of miles away.

"There is the possibility that it could reach Japan without losing its strength," he said.