Despite evacuation alerts, tsunami from Chile earthquake causes minimal damage in Hawaii

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HILO, Hawaii — A tsunami triggered by the massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile reached Hawaii today, hours after sirens began blaring throughout the state to alert residents about the expected waves.

Water began pulling away from shore off Hilo Bay on the Big Island just before noon and later washed over Coconut Island, a small park off the coast of Hilo. While the extent of the damage was not immediately clear, the initial waves did not appear to be serious, looking more like an extreme fluctuation in the tide than a giant tsunami.

Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, said Hawaii had “dodged a bullet,” while also defending the decision to urge evacuations of coastal areas, saying “better safe than sorry.”

Officials had not yet given an all-clear in Hawaii, but there were no immediate reports of major damage around the Pacific rim — just tidal surges that reached up to about seven feet in some island chains.

Unlike other tsunamis in recent years in which residents had little to if any warnings, emergency officials along the Pacific today had hours to prepare and decide on evacuating residents.

At about 6 a.m., nine Cessna planes equipped with loudspeakers flew along shorelines and began sounding warnings.

Speaking from the White House, President Barack Obama urged residents to follow the instructions of local authorities, and in Honolulu, Gov. Linda Lingle declared a state of emergency.

The Hilo International Airport, located along the coast, was closed, and The SackNSave grocery store was filled with people buying everything from instant noodles to beer. Shelves with water were mostly empty, save a few bottles.

In Honolulu, Teney Takahashi, 70, loaded three days of food and water into his car trunk, preparing to leave his prime beachfront home in the Wailupe neighborhood with his wife and two dogs. They wanted to be gone before the tsunami might arrive and planned to head to a friend’s house just up the hill.

“You don’t have to go far,” Takahashi said. “All you got to do is stay out of the surge height.”

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Lingle said earlier that leprosy patients from the Kalaupapa settlement on Molokai had been moved to higher ground, and helicopters were standing by to move the patients to a safer area if needed.

“We have some helicopters pre-positioned if we need them to do evacuations at Kalaupapa,” she said. “For now, they will evacuate in the peninsula by going to higher ground.”

In Waikiki, where police and fire trucks went through the streets, every TV was showing the news. Convenience stores and McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants shut down. On the horizon were hundreds of boats that headed out of port to ride out the waves. All traffic was headed out of the city. Those without vehicles hunkered down.

Among people on vacation there was some nervous laughter and joking about dealing with an emergency.

Tourists Andy Gamber and Martina Vetsch, of Switzerland, waited in line for an ATM this morning so they could buy water and supplies.

“We were going to go to the beach for a swim. Not now,” said Gamper, who arrived in Hawaii the day before.

The University of Hawaii closed its campus and announced all athletic events scheduled for today, including a Nevada-Hawaii men’s basketball game, were canceled or postponed.

Past South American earthquakes have had deadly effects across the Pacific. In 1960, a tsunami after a magnitude-9.5 quake in Chile, killed about 140 people in Japan, 61 in Hawaii and 32 in the Philippines. The 1960 earthquake is the largest ever recorded.