HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific braced for a destructive tsunami early Friday after a massive earthquake struck in Japan.
Tsunami sirens were sounded and coastal areas were being evacuated in Hawaii, where the first waves were expected to hit about 3 a.m. Friday. The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has widened its tsunami warning beyond East Asia early Friday to include Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, the entire U.S. western coast, Mexico and Central and South America and the rest of the Pacific Ocean.
Chip McCreary, the center's director, said tsunami waves have the potential to swamp coastal areas of all Hawaii's islands. "What these waves look like is an elevation of sea level, where the sea level will rise above its normal level and stay high for 10 or 15 minutes before it starts to recede," he said. "As a result of this, in a tsunami wave, that water can flood the coast line and be a hazard to people and buildings on the coast."
The warnings cover an area stretching the entire western coast of the United States and Canada from the Mexican border to Chignik Bay in Alaska. In Alaska, a dozen small communities along the Aleutian Island chain were on alert. "Everyone in that area knows, when you feel it, move - don't wait for a siren," said John Madden, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The largest affected town is Unalaska, population about 4,000.
Residents in coastal areas across the Pacific from Hawaii to Guam were ordered to evacuate to shelters and higher ground. In Hawaii's tourist district of Waikiki, visitors were being moved to higher floors of their hotels. Meanwhile, residents were waiting in long lines stocking up on gas, bottled water, canned food and generators.
"We're preparing for the worst and we're praying for the best," said John Cummings III, spokesman for the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management. McCreary said the threat will become clearer when the waves hit Wake Island and Midway. "Tsunami waves, because of their long length, they wrap around our islands very efficiently," he said.
Readings have come in from deep ocean gages deployed since the 2004 tsunami in Banda Acha in Japan and around Wake Island. The warning was issued Thursday at 9:31 HST p.m. Sirens were sounded about 30 minutes later in Honolulu alerting people in coastal areas to evacuate.
About 70 percent of Hawaii's 1.4 million population resides in Honolulu, and as many as 100,000 tourists are in the city on any given day.
In the Philippines, officials ordered an evacuation of coastal communities along the country's eastern seaboard in expectation of a tsunami following the 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan. Disaster management officials in Albay province southeast of Manila say they ordered residents to move to designated evacuation sites that are at least 15 feet (5 meters) above sea level.
In Guam, authorities advised people to evacuate low areas of the U.S. territory and seek ground higher than 50 feet above sea level and 100 feet inland. The Northern Mariana Islands, another U.S. territory, was also under the warning, and the Hyatt Regency in Saipan has moved guests to three highest floors of the seven-story hotel. Hotel spokesman Luis Villagomez said the hotel had received about three tsunami warnings in the last year but no serious damage.
Australia was not in danger because it was protected by island nations to the north, including Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, that would largely absorb any wave activity, said Chris Ryan, a forecaster at the National Meteorological and Oceanographic Centre, the Australian government agency that monitors the threat.
Tsunami warnings are issued due to the imminent threat of a tsunami.