Ports and beaches were temporarily shut and islanders and coastal residents ordered to higher ground up and down Latin America’s Pacific seaboard ahead of the tsunami surge triggered by the killer Japanese quake. But it did little damage.
By the time the tsunami waves travelled across the wide Pacific Ocean and into the southern hemisphere, only slightly higher waters than normal came ashore in Mexico, Honduras and Colombia, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, Chile’s Easter Island and Peru and Chile’s mainlands.
Waves as high as six feet crashed into South America into today – in some cases sending the Pacific surging into streets – after coastal dwellers rushed to close ports and schools and evacuated several hundred thousand people.
Major evacuations were ordered in Ecuador and Chile, where hundreds of thousands of people moved out of low-lying coastal areas. After the devastating tsunami Chile suffered following its major quake a year ago, authorities weren’t taking any chances.
Still, the danger waned as the day progressed and minimal damage was reported.
Heavy swells rolled through the port and marinas of the Baja California resort of Cabo San Lucas, rocking boats at anchor, but they did not top seawalls or bring any reports of damage.
Mexican officials closed the major cargo port of Manzanillo and officials said some cargo ships and a cruise liner had decided to delay entering ports to avoid possible problems from any rough water. Classes were suspended at some low-lying schools in the resort city of Acapulco, and officials urged people to stay away from beaches.
Officials in the Central American nation of Honduras said waves along its coast were little changed from the normal three feet and they later lifted the country’s tsunami alert.
On Chile’s Easter Island, in the remote South Pacific about 2,200 miles west of the capital of Santiago, residents and tourists moved to high ground, evacuating the only town, Hanga Roa.
But the tsunami rolled in at low tide Friday evening, causing no damage. Islanders watching the sea from higher ground could see nothing unusual, former governor Sergio Rapu said by telephone.
The minimal impact on Chile’s westernmost territory was welcome news for the South America’s mainland. By the time the tsunami swells reached coastal communities, they had long lost their punch.
In Peru, the Ministry of Education closed schools for thousands of children in coastal areas, where 55 % of the country’s 28 million people live. Authorities also closed beaches popular with tourists, including Lima’s “Costa Verde.” Dozens evacuated their homes in flood-prone areas of Callao, the port adjacent to Lima, and the capital’s coastal highway was shut down.
But when the tsunami arrived, it topped out in Lima at three and a half feet, said Luis Palomino, chief of Peru’s Civil Defence Institute.
Dozens of spectators gathered on the cliffs of Lima’s Miraflores district to watch but the rise in water proved almost imperceptible. But at a beach just south of Lima, the ocean receded about 100 yards and surged back twice in 15 minutes.
Civil defence officials and police reported such surges in several towns along the coast.
Some of the strongest preventative action was taken by Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa, who declared a state of emergency and ordered people on the Galapagos Islands and the coast of the mainland to seek higher ground.
He ordered schools closed and said the military would guard property. Ecuador also suspended oil exports and halted operations at its La Libertad refinery near the ocean, though its main refinery continued to function.
The Galapagos, like Easter Island a Unesco protected world heritage site, is an archipelago about 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast where about 15,000 people fish and serve the tourism trade. Friday, the seas there progressively grew after a series of initially low swells, and police said the tsunami flooded a low-lying area of Santa more than a quarter-mile inland without causing serious damage. There was also flooding on another larger island, San Cristobal.
Ecuador’s oceanographic institute said waves likely would exceed six feet (two meters) along the mainland coast as the tsunami travelled about 300 miles an hour.
Correa said earlier that the 242,000 people who were evacuated from low-lying areas, most of them on the mainland, would be kept on higher ground until officials determined it was safe.
Chile also evacuated hundreds of thousands from areas vulnerable to coastal flooding, and refused to let residents go home even when the tsunami clearly lost steam. With last year’s quake and tsunami-related deaths weighing heavily on everyone’s minds, interior minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter insisted on “prudence.”
State television showed empty streets in a half-dozen coastal cities being patrolled by soldiers to guard against looters and ensure residents stayed away.
When Chile’s magnitude-8.8 earthquake struck a year ago, navy and emergency preparedness officials mistakenly told people there was no tsunami danger, and many people who might have escaped with enough warning were caught in the massive waves.