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Two million Chileans affected by quake while Hawaii ‘dodged a bullet’

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Saturday, February 27, 2010 6:48 EDT
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Death toll rises to 300 in Chile

Update: Tsunami warning canceled

Update: Expert says Hawaii ‘dodged a bullet’

Update: Initial predictions may have overestimated tsunami size

Update: Experts say tsunami becoming more powerful at it hits

Two million people have been affected by the massive earthquake that struck central Chile on Saturday, said President Michelle Bachelet in a statement Saturday.

Bachelet said in a television address that forces of nature were testing the country.

“And once again they’ve put to the test our ability to deal with adversity and get back on our feet,” she said. “And we are examining every way to restore all the basic services in the country. But there’s still a lot to do.”

The tsunami that struck Hawaii stirred up sediment and tossed around some waves, but did no apparent damage, according to reports since it struck late Saturday afternoon.

More than 100,000 people were evacuated from areas that officials said would face 14-ft. high waves, but instead was hit by waves no higher than 5.5 feet.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center canceled their tsunami warning soon after.

Hawaii “dodged a bullet,” said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist with the center, suggesting that Hawaii escaped the large-scale destruction in Chile, where an 8.8-magnitude earthquake caused a tsunami to crash into the coast, killing at least 300 people.

Asked about the difference the center’s failure to accurately predict the size of the tsunami, Fryer said the center would be looking into it.

“It’s been a long day,” he said.

An AFP correspondent said buildings in the capital “shook like jelly”.

Scientists still expect the quake to cause more tsunamis across the Pacific ocean, but in Hawaii, there were no immediate reports of widespread damage, injuries or deaths in the U.S. or in the Pacific islands.

“We can breathe a sigh of relief,” one of the center’s directors said. “I think we saw a very good roll out of our program.”

The tsunami was causing a series of surges that were about 20 minutes apart, and the waves arrived later and smaller than originally predicted. The highest wave measured 5.5 feet (1.7 meters) high, while Maui saw some as high as 2 meters (6.5 feet).

Despite the big wave’s no-show, officials said, the tsunami warning gave Hawaii residents good practice for the real deal. “We know the system works now because we had a test in a real-life situation,” said Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi.

Sirens blared in French Polynesia to warn residents to find higher ground as a tsunami watch went into effect across the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire” after the 8.8-magnitude quake in Chile, which left at least 122 people dead.

Nations along an arc stretching from New Zealand to Japan implemented emergency plans that were beefed up after the Indian Ocean disaster of 2004, when a series of immensely destructive tsunamis killed more than 220,000.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, set up by Pacific governments after a tsunami unleashed by a deadly 9.5 magnitude earthquake in Chile in 1960, warned of possible “widespread damage” as outsized waves raced across the ocean.

“We could be looking at an all-day event,” US National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Lau told AFP in Washington.

“It will stop once it hits the land masses on the other side of the Pacific, in Asia. The wave is spread out across the entire body of water in the Pacific.”

Authorities in the US state of Hawaii, where the warning centre is based, said residents would shortly start hearing tsunami sirens.

“If you live anywhere in the evacuation zone, you have to evacuate,” Oahu Emergency Management Department John Cummings said. “We’re going to treat this as a destructive-type tsunami.”

One tsunami measuring 7.7 feet (2.34 meters) slammed into Talcahuano, one of about 11 coastal towns in Chile hit by the wave, according to the Pacific centre. There was no immediate word of casualties.

Chile’s remote Robinson Crusoe Island, some 700 kilometres (430 miles) from the mainland, was also smashed by a huge wave, while President Michelle Bachelet announced a partial evacuation of Easter Island.

The pan-Pacific tsunami warning applied also to Central America, and authorities as far afield as Russia’s Sakhalin island were monitoring the potential for tidal trouble.

In the tourist paradise of French Polynesia, the local government said the first waves were expected to reach the Gambier archipelago imminently. Sirens and loudspeaker announcements woke up residents in the middle of the night.

New Zealand warned of a wall of water up to three metres (10 feet) high potentially hitting some of its outlying islands and part of the South Island, as the country’s National Crisis Management Centre went on alert.

The civil defence ministry said the tsunami could strike the country’s east coast from 7:05 am Sunday (1805 GMT Saturday).

The Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre warned of the “possibility of dangerous waves, strong ocean currents and foreshore flooding” along the coast between Sydney and Brisbane.

Authorities in Indonesia and Taiwan said they were monitoring, while Philippine officials started planning for possible evacuations.

Jake Phillips, a forecaster with Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, played down the risk of major flooding in heavily populated coastal areas.

“But there is a marine threat and that would include anyone out boating or rock fishermen,” he said.

Memories are still raw in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga of a terrifying tsunami that trashed entire villages in September, leaving 184 dead.

The Hawaii operation manages a network of early-warning electronic buoys strung across the Pacific Ocean. But the September waves came so suddenly as to give little time for escape.

A week later, a rapid succession of quakes off Vanuatu created panic across the South Pacific. The region is in the middle of the “Ring of Fire”, a belt of seismic fury responsible for most of the world’s tremors and volcanoes.

Any tsunami will show up in Australia from about 8:15 am on Sunday (2115 GMT Saturday), officials said.

Seismic waves could reach the east coast of Japan around noon Sunday (0300 GMT), according to the country’s meteorological agency.

“We would like people to be fully on alert for related information,” agency official Yasuo Sekita told a hastily arranged news conference, as Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama ordered his government to be ready for relief work.

This video is from MSNBC, broadcast Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

With AFP.

Article modified from several prior versions.

 
 
 
 
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