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Tsunami ambles ashore

A large earthquake off British Columbia sparks a statewide warning and evacuations

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 4:14 a.m. HST, Oct 28, 2012

Small tsunami waves lapped at island shores Saturday after a 7.7-magnitude earthquake off British Columbia triggered a statewide tsunami warning and massive evacuations along vulnerable coastlines.

By 11:17 p.m., four waves had hit Hawaii, the largest at 5 feet from peak to trough at Kahului, Maui, said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach. That means it was 2 1/2 feet above the ambient sea level.

The waves were about 12 minutes apart, he said.

Scientists at the center remained cautious and declined to issue an all-clear before midnight, but Fryer said the waves were smaller than expected.

"It seems like the forecast was an overprediction," he told reporters.

The first tsunami waves arrived on Oahu around 10:30 p.m., but there were no initial reports of damage.

Fryer said waves could continue to come ashore for six or seven hours.

Tidal gauges recorded sea level changes at Makapuu, Hanalei and Haleiwa, Fryer said.

"The tsunami arrived about when we expected it should. It was a little smaller than we expected," Fryer said. "I don't think we're going to have anything really large. It's beginning to look like the evacuation may not have been necessary."

Tsunami warning sirens began blaring around 7:40 p.m. and people in inundation zones were urged to evacuate immediately.


>> A magnitude 7.7 earthquake struck at about 5:04 p.m. Saturday Hawaii time.
>> The epicenter was centered 452 miles northwest of Vancouver at a depth of about 3 miles.
>> The temblor was followed by a 5.8-magnitude aftershock. Several other aftershocks were reported.
>> The quake was the strongest in Canada since 1970 when a 7.4-magnitude quake struck south of the Haida Gwaii.
>> Canada’s largest quake since 1700 was an 8.1-magnitude quake on Aug. 22, 1949, off the coast of British Columbia.

Source: Associated Press

In Waikiki, hotels began so-called "vertical evacuation," moving guests to higher floors, shortly after the warning was issued. And across the state, "tsunami refuge centers" were opened to give residents a safe place to park as they waited out the danger.

Some of those centers filled quickly.

Dozens of people sought safe haven at Makakilo Community Park as they anxiously awaited news. Many came with blankets, portable radios, pets and coolers full of drinks to pass the time. The park took on the air of a neighborhood block party — but with people keenly tuned to their radios, listening for the latest developments.

Kapolei resident Harmony Valoroso, 33, was at the park with 13 other family members, sitting around a tent they erected to wait out the tidal surge.

Before leaving their home, they grabbed important papers and the urn containing the ashes of Harmony's late father, Steven Valoroso Sr.

"That's the first thing I grabbed," said Pauline Valoroso, Steven Valoroso's widow.

As former Makaha residents, the Valorosos are no strangers to evacuations and started gathering their belongings immediately after hearing the emergency sirens.

"We don't take this lightly," Harmony Valoroso said. "Mother Nature can twist any time."

The tsunami warning came at about 7:15 p.m., two hours after the warning center reported that Hawaii was not in danger of a tsunami. The center said earlier only that some coastal areas of Hawaii could experience sea-level changes and strong or unusual currents from the quake lasting up to several hours.

Sea-level readings prompted the upgrade to a warning, officials said.

The quake in the Haida Gwaii or Queen Charlotte Islands region occurred at 5:04 p.m. Hawaii time, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. The epicenter was 126 miles south-southwest of Prince Rupert, B.C., and 452 miles northwest of Vancouver.

The USGS said the 7.7-magnitude quake in Canada was followed by 5.8- and 5.1-magnitude aftershocks. In Canada, there were no reports of major damage. Residents in parts of British Columbia were evacuated but the province appeared to escape the quake largely unscathed.

This is the first time Hawaii has seen a tsunami warning triggered by an earthquake off Canada.

"It's rare," said Victor Sardina, geophysicist with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

There have been five earthquakes off the Queen Charlotte Islands since 1929, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The most recent, a magnitude 6.6, was in 2009.

As people sought higher ground Saturday night, traffic backed up in many parts of the island.

There were also reports of sirens in some areas not working.

Hawaii Island Mayor Billy Kenoi said tsunami sirens in East Hawaii island, including the Keaukaha, Waiakea and portions of Puna, initially failed to work in a "glitch," but police technicians were summoned, Kenoi said.

The sirens were sounded successfully in the East Hawaii island area at about 9:10 p.m.

To ensure residents were aware of the danger, Civil Air Patrol aircraft flew over shorelines to supplement sirens and emergency responders blared warnings from their vehicles.

Meanwhile, to prepare for the waves, the Coast Guard led larger boats out of small boat harbors to prevent major damage.

At 10 p.m., police closed roads in tsunami inundation zones.

As scores of Ewa Beach residents got caught in the traffic jam on Fort Weaver Road trying to leave the community, about 30 families had gathered in the parking lot of Asing Community Park, a designated evacuation site.

As of 11 p.m., however, the community center had not yet been opened.

Traffic along Farrington Highway trying to head into Waianae was diverted by police at Ko Olina Resort.

In Waikiki, officials moved quickly to vertically evacuate visitors and reported no major problems.

"Even with the shorter notice, the visitor industry is prepared," said Mike McCartney President and CEO of the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority.

"Every hotel has an evacuation plan. Everybody is ready," he said.

At Buzz's Original Steakhouse just mauka of Kailua Beach Park, a handful of patrons were finishing their dinner just after 9 p.m. Manager Mani Schneider said about 15 guests left earlier, without eating, when they heard news of the tsunami warning.

Schneider said seven employees were allowed to go home early.

Cars trickled out of the beachfront community of Lanikai, but there was no sense of panic. Some residents were walking or bicycling on Mokulua and Aalapapa drives.

In Hawaii Kai around 9 p.m., cars and trucks were lined up five deep at the pumps at a Chevron gas station in the tsunami inundation zone.

Rich Reilly was trying to fill up his pickup truck as fast as possible so he could get to his beach lot house in Waimanalo to grab belongings and important papers.

"I'm a sailor, so I respect Mother Nature — and I challenge her as a sailor — but I don't want to challenge her this time," said the 47-year-old Reilly, a general contractor. "I totally respect this."

Lanikai resident Christine Crosby lives on high ground but has friends at sea level, and she wanted to get her gas so she could get home and make sure they were safe.

Hawaii has had tsunami threats that resulted in nothing, but that didn't matter to her.

"I grew up here and I have neighbors who survived two tsunamis and they said to not go near the ocean," said Crosby, 45. "I take it pretty seriously."


Star-Advertiser reporters Gordon Pang, Rosemarie Bernardo, Gary Chun, Ann Miller, Rob Perez, Allison Schaefers, Kevin Dayton, Andy Yamaguchi and Gary T. Kubota contributed to this report.

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