Tsunami waves race across globe
HONOLULU - With a rapt world watching the drama unfold on live television, a tsunami raced across a quarter of the globe yesterday and set off fears of a repeat of the carnage that caught the world off guard in Asia in 2004.
The tsunami delivered nothing more than a glancing blow to the United States and South Pacific, but Japan was bracing for a direct hit and waves up to 10 feet high by this afternoon. Scientists worried the giant wave could gain strength as it rounds the planet and consolidates.
The tsunami was spawned by a ferocious magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile that sent waves barreling north across the Pacific at the speed of a jetliner. But Pacific islands had ample time to prepare because the quake struck several thousand miles away.
By the time the tsunami 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.
Others parked their cars along higher ground to watch the ocean turbulence, and one brave soul stayed behind and surfed before being urged by an emergency helicopter pilot to get out of the water.
There were no immediate reports of widespread damage, injuries, or deaths in the United States or in the Pacific islands, but a tsunami that swamped a village on an island off Chile killed at least five people and left 11 missing.
It was still possible that the tsunami would gain strength as it heads to Japan, and nearly 50 countries and island chains remained under tsunami warnings from Antarctica to Russia.
Past South American earthquakes have had deadly effects across the Pacific.
A tsunami after a magnitude-9.5 quake that struck Chile in 1960, the largest earthquake ever recorded, killed about 140 people in Japan, 61 in Hawaii, and 32 in the Philippines.
Hawaii had originally prepared to bear the brunt of the damage yesterday. “We dodged a bullet,’’ said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.
The tsunami raised fears that the Pacific could fall victim to the type of killer waves that killed 230,000 people in the Indian Ocean in 2004 the morning after Christmas. During that disaster, there was little to no warning and much confusion about the impending waves.
Yesterday’s tsunami caused a series of surges in Hawaii that were about 20 minutes apart, and the waves arrived later and smaller than originally predicted. The highest wave at Hilo measured 5.5 feet high, while Maui saw some as high as 6.5 feet.