The tsunami sent a rush of water ashore in Hawaii, California and South Pacific islands before moving onto Alaska and parts of Asia. An official from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center told The Associated Press that Hawaii "dodged a bullet." The organization lifted its tsunami warning for the state.
Residents of Hilo, on the Big Island, watched nervously as the ocean receded about three feet, then swelled, well aware of past tsunamis that killed more than 200 people and destroyed hundreds of buildings. This time, the surge came in like a rambunctious tide, but it didn't rise into the bayside downtown.
As a precaution, low-lying areas on all the islands were under evacuation orders effective 10 a.m. local time, an hour before the anticipated arrival of the tsunami. Long lines were reported at gas stations in the hours leading up to the evacuation order, and many island business were closed until the officials issued an "all-clear" order. In anticipation of the surge, boats were moved out to sea, where they could easily ride out the tsunami.
The first surge was reported by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center about 11:15 a.m., with a second surge about 20 minutes later.
Hilo has been devastated twice in modern history by tsunamis. On May 23, 1960, a massive 9.5-magnitude quake, also in Chile, spawned a tsunami that raced across the Pacific Ocean, striking Hawaii about 15 hours later. Most of the islands suffered little damage, but the geography of Hawaii's Big Island, and the lay out of Hilo's harbor, funneled and trapped the surging ocean. Waves built taller than 35 feet and devastated the small city's downtown, killing 61 people and damaging more than 500 buildings.
In 1946, a 7.1 earthquake to the north, in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, killed 159 people in Hawaii – and swept away much of Hilo's shorefront downtown.
"Unlike little islands, which a tsunami can just go flying past, the Big Island is large enough that it slows down the advancing tsunami waves and gives them a chance to build up, " Walter Dudley, a tsunami expert at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, said this morning from Hilo. "The other thing is Hilo Bay is funnel shaped ... Succeeding waves get bigger and bigger."
Dudley said the interaction of the waves with the shorelines "is complex and it gets very difficult to predict how big it's going to be. You just want to stay away from the shore. If you're close enough to see, you're too close to get away safely."
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Dudley is one of the founders of the Pacific Tsunami Museum at ocean's edge in Hilo, and was on the roof this morning with colleagues setting up cameras to record whatever happens.
"I have a couple of children who live down by the water, and they are now safely at my house" 500 feet above sea level, Dudley said, speaking by cell phone from the shoreline. He said he and his colleagues had received special passes to be there setting up monitoring equipment while authorities evacuated residents.
But Dudley and his colleagues had no intention of staying. "As the time of impact approaches, we'll be gone," he said.