Tsunami rips across Pacific, pats Japan
Feared waves from Chile do little in Asia
Compiled from AP, Kyodo
The tsunami generated by the immense earthquake in Chile hit Japan's main islands Sunday, but the initial waves washed ashore without causing any damage after sparing most of the Pacific islands in its path.
|Tough going: A man rides his scooter through a road flooded with seawater Sunday in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. KYODO PHOTO|
The Meteorological Agency said the biggest wave in the initial tsunami from the 8.8-magnitude temblor off Chile was 145 cm high and hit the fishing port of the town of Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture at around 3:43 p.m.
Another one about 120 cm high landed in Kuji, also in Iwate, at 3:49 p.m.
No casualties had been reported as of 5 p.m., the National Police Agency said.
Residents in Nemuro, Hokkaido, and the Ogasawara islands off Tokyo also were advised to flee to safer areas.
The major warning was downgraded to a regular warning for the three northern prefectures at 7:01 p.m., and a mere advisory in other areas later on.
By Sunday evening, authorities had issued evacuation orders and advice to an estimated 520,000 people nationwide.
Despite the downgrades, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama urged people living near the coastline to steer clear, telling reporters, "Carelessness is the devil's workshop."
"Tsunami isn't just the first (wave)," he said. "We can never take the optimistic view that just because the first wave has arrived, we are safe. Tsunami are a scary thing."
The Japan Coast Guard urged ships operating off Iwate to evacuate the area.
The warning caused East Japan Railway Co. and other JR firms to suspend services in coastal areas, and some airports to cancel flights. An expressway in the warning zone was also partly closed to traffic.
In Oirase, Aomori Prefecture, voting for the mayoral election was suspended in the morning as the local election board decided to close three polling stations near the coast.
As it crossed the Pacific, the tsunami dealt populated areas — including Hawaii — just a glancing blow.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has lifted its warning for every country but Russia and Japan, although some countries in Asia and the Pacific — including the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand — were keeping their own watches in place as a precaution.
The tsunami initially raised fears that the Pacific could fall victim to the type of waves that killed 230,000 people in the Indian Ocean in 2004 the morning after Christmas. During that disaster, there was little or no warning and much confusion about the impending waves.
Officials said the opposite occurred with the Chile quake: They overstated their predictions for the size of the waves and the threat.
"We expected the waves to be bigger in Hawaii, maybe about 50 percent bigger than they actually were," said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the warning center. "We'll be looking at that."
But Japan, fearing the tsunami could gain force as it moved closer, put all of its eastern coastline on tsunami alert Sunday and ordered hundreds of thousands of residents in low-lying areas to seek higher ground as waves generated by the Chilean earthquake raced across the Pacific at jetliner speeds.
Japan is particularly sensitive to the tsunami threat.
In July 1993, a tsunami triggered by a major earthquake off Hokkaido killed more than 200 people on the small island of Okushiri. A stronger quake near Chile in 1960 created a tsunami that killed about 140 people in Japan.
The waves were expected to be biggest in the north. The Meteorological Agency said a tsunami of up to 3 meters — the threshold for a Major Tsunami Warning — could hit Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi, although the first waves were much smaller.
People packed their families into cars, but there were no reports of panic or traffic jams. Fishermen secured their boats and police patrolled beaches, using sirens and loudspeakers to warn people to stay away.
Elsewhere, however, the tsunami passed quietly.
By the time it 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.
Waves hit California, but barely registered amid a storm. A surfing contest outside San Diego went on as planned.
In Tonga, where up to 50,000 people fled inland hours ahead of the tsunami, the National Disaster Office had reports of a wave up to 2 meters high hitting a small northern island, deputy director Mali'u Takai said. There were no initial indications of damage.
Nine people died in Tonga last September when the Samoa tsunami slammed the small northern island of Niuatoputapu, wiping out half of the main settlement.
In Samoa, where 183 people died in the tsunami five months ago, thousands remained Sunday morning in the hills above the coasts on the main island of Upolu, but police said that there were no reports of waves or sea surges hitting the South Pacific nation.
Villagers living close to the Philippines' eastern coast were advised to move to higher ground, said Renato Solidum, the chief of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. He said a wave of about 1 meter high could hit early in the afternoon.
"We're not expecting any huge tsunami, so we're just urging everybody to take precautions," Solidum said.
On New Zealand's Chatham Islands earlier Sunday, officials reported seeing a wave measured at 2 meters.
Oceanographer Ken Gledhill said it was typical tsunami behavior when the sea level dropped 1 meter off North Island's east coast at Gisborne then surged back.
Several hundred people in the North Island coastal cities of Gisborne and Napier were evacuated from their homes and from campgrounds, while residents in low-lying areas on South Island's Banks Peninsula were alerted to be ready to evacuate.
New Zealand's Ministry of Civil Defense and Emergency Management cut the national warning to an advisory Sunday afternoon, and in the Cook Islands police issued the all-clear at midmorning Sunday.
In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology reported a tsunami measuring 0.5 meters off Norfolk Island.