The tsunami from Chile’s deadly earthquake hit Japan’s main islands and the shores of Russia today but the smaller-than-expected waves prompted the lifting of a Pacific-wide alert.
In Japan, where hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from shorelines, the biggest wave following the magnitude-8.8 quake off Chile hit the northern island of Hokkaido.
There were no immediate reports of damage from the four foot (1.2 metre) wave, though some piers were briefly flooded.
As it crossed the Pacific, the tsunami dealt populated areas – including the US state of Hawaii – only a glancing blow.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii issued a warning for 53 nations and territories but lifted it today, though some countries were keeping their own watches in place as a precaution.
The tsunami raised fears the Pacific could fall victim to the type of devastating waves that killed 230,000 people in the Indian Ocean on St Stephen's Day in 2004.
During that disaster, there was little or no warning and much confusion about the impending waves.
Officials said the opposite occurred after the Chile quake: they overstated their predictions of the size of the waves and the threat.
“We expected the waves to be bigger in Hawaii, maybe about 50% bigger than they actually were,” said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the warning centre. “We’ll be looking at that.”
Japan, fearing the tsunami could gain force as it moved closer, put all of its eastern coastline on tsunami alert 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 hundreds of miles per hour.
Japan is particularly sensitive to the tsunami threat.
In July 1993 a tsunami triggered by a major earthquake off Japan’s northern coast 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.
Towns along northern coasts issued evacuation orders to 400,000 residents, Japanese public broadcaster NHK said. NHK switched to emergency mode, broadcasting a map with the areas in most danger and repeatedly urging caution.
As the wave continued its expansion across the ocean, Japan’s Meteorological Agency said waves of up to 10 feet (three metres) could hit the northern prefectures of Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi, but 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 leave the area.
Elsewhere, the tsunami passed gently.
By the time the tsunami hit Hawaii – a full 16 hours after the quake - officials had already spent the morning blasting emergency sirens, blaring warnings from aeroplanes and ordering residents to higher ground.
The islands were back to paradise by the afternoon, but residents endured severe disruption and a 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 petrol stations.
Waves hit California, but barely registered amid stormy weather. 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 6.5 feet (two metres) 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 in the hills above the coasts on the main island of Upolu, but police said there were no reports of waves or sea surges hitting the South Pacific nation.
At least 20,000 people abandoned their homes in south-eastern Philippine villages and took shelter in government buildings or fled to nearby mountains overnight due to the tsunami scare. Provincial officials scrambled to alert villagers and prepare contingency plans, according to the National Disaster Co-ordinating Council.
Philippine navy and coastguard vessels, along with police, were ordered to stand by for possible evacuation but the alert was lifted late in the afternoon.
Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency said there was no tsunami risk for the archipelago as it was too far from the quake’s epicentre.
On New Zealand’s Chatham Islands earlier, officials reported a wave measured at 6.6 feet (two metres).
Oceanographer Ken Gledhill said it was typical tsunami behaviour when the sea water dropped three feet (a metre) off North Island’s east coast at Gisborne and then surged back.
Several hundred people in the North Island coastal cities of Gisborne and Napier were evacuated from their homes and from camp grounds, while residents in low-lying areas on South Island’s Banks Peninsula were alerted to be ready to evacuate.
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology cancelled its tsunami warning on Sunday evening.
“The main tsunami waves have now passed all Australian locations,” the bureau said.
No damage was reported in Australia from small waves that were recorded earlier in the day in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Norfolk Island, about 1,000 miles north-east of Sydney.
New Zealand’s Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management downgraded its tsunami warning to an advisory status, which it planned to keep in place overnight.