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Tsunami swamps isle shores, sweeps away home

March 12, 2011
By MARK NIESSE, The Associated Press

EWA BEACH, Oahu - A deadly tsunami spawned from a devastating earthquake across the Pacific sent residents and tourists scrambling to higher ground across Hawaii on Friday, unleashing waves several feet high that inundated the lobbies of low-lying hotels and swept away a house.

The 8.9-magnitude quake off Japan - the country's biggest earthquake in recorded history - sent waves racing 500 mph toward the West Coast of the U.S. Sirens blared before dawn on the Hawaiian Islands, where residents quickly stocked up on bottled water, canned foods and toilet paper.

Authorities also went through the tourist mecca of Waikiki, warning of the approaching tsunami. Hotels moved tourists from lower floors to upper levels; some visitors ended up spending the night in their cars.

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Hawaii Governor

By the time the waves reached Hawaii, most residents were already on higher ground. Low-lying areas on Maui were flooded as 7-foot waves crashed ashore; water covered beachfront roads and rushed into hotels on the Big Island. Fishermen took their boats out to sea, away from harbors and marinas where the waves would be most intense.

Yet most residents breathed a sigh of relief as the sun rose.

''With everything that could have happened and did happen in Japan, we're just thankful that nothing else happened,'' said Sabrina Skiles, who along with her husband spent a sleepless night at his office on Maui. Their beachfront house was unscathed.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie estimated at a news conference that the tsunami caused millions of dollars in dam-

age. Still, the islands were ''fortunate almost beyond words,'' he said earlier Friday.

''All of us had that feeling that Hawaii was just the most blessed place on the face of the Earth today,'' he said.

The governor signed a state-of-disaster proclamation, the first step in seeking federal disaster-relief funds.

On the Big Island, firefighters spotted a floating home in Kealakekua Bay and seven others damaged by at least one large wave, said Quince Mento with the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency. Buildings 11 miles north, in Kailua-Kona, also suffered extensive damage.

Mento said the bay is not very populated, and he didn't know the exact size of the single-family structure - nor if it was still floating in the bay or had gone to sea.

About 200 boats were damaged at Keehi Small Boat Harbor near Small Island after waves shook loose docks with the vessels attached. One boat slammed into the island's bridge.

At least two boats sank and another overturned at Maalaea Harbor, Coast Guard spokes-man Lt. Gene Maestas said.

The islands were struck by several surges, including one that fully exposed a near-shore reef off Diamond Head lookout to spectators who had gathered to watch the waves.

It was the second time in a little over a year that Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast faced the threat of a massive tsunami. A magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile spawned warnings Feb. 27, 2010, but the waves were much smaller than predicted and did little damage.

This time around, the warning went out within 10 minutes of the earthquake in Japan, said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu. ''We called this right. This evacuation was necessary,'' Fryer said. ''There's absolutely no question, this was the right thing to do.''

The warnings issued by the tsunami center covered an area stretching the entire western coast of the United States and Canada from the Mexican border to Chignik Bay in Alaska. Many other Pacific islands briefly evacuated their shorelines.

President Barack Obama said he was ''heartbroken'' by images of devastation in Japan, and pledged U.S. assistance to help the country recover. He urged residents in the affected areas of the West Coast to heed warnings from local officials and evacuate if told to do so.

One U.S. aircraft carrier was already in Japan, and a second was on its way to assist with the recovery efforts.



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