TOKYO – A tsunami that raced across the Pacific swiped island nations and Asian coasts lightly Sunday, proving to be more spectacle than destructive force for communities that had hours to prepare after Chile's devastating earthquake.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled shorelines for higher ground after the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii warned 53 nations and territories that a tsunami had been generated by Saturday's magnitude-8.8 quake earthquake. After the center lifted its warning, some countries kept their own watches in place as a precaution.
In Japan, the biggest wave hit the northern island of Hokkaido. There were no immediate reports of damage from the four-foot wave, though some piers were briefly flooded.
As it crossed the Pacific, the tsunami dealt populated areas — including the U.S. state of Hawaii — only a glancing blow.
The tsunami raised fears Pacific nations could suffer from disastrous waves like those that killed 230,000 people around the Indian Ocean in December 2004, which happened with little-to-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 percent bigger than they actually were," said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the warning center. "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 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 crossed the ocean, Japan's Meteorological Agency said waves of up to 10 feet 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.
In Kesennuma, northern Japan, seawater flooded streets near the coast for about four hours before receding but caused little impact to people.
But the tsunami passed gently by most locations.
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 airplanes and ordering residents to higher ground. The Navy moved a half dozen vessels out of Pearl Harbor and a cruiser out of Naval Base San Diego to avoid the surge.
Picturesque beaches were desolate, million-dollar homes were evacuated, shops in Waikiki were closed and residents filled supermarkets and gas stations to stock up on supplies. But after the morning scare, the islands were back to paradise by the afternoon.
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 meters) 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 Sunday morning 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 southeastern Philippine villages and took shelter in government buildings or fled to nearby mountains overnight. Provincial officials scrambled to alert villagers and prepare contingency plans, according to the National Disaster Coordinating Council.
Philippine navy and coast guard vessels, along with police, were ordered to stand by for possible evacuation but the alert was lifted late Sunday afternoon.
Indonesia, which suffered the brunt of the 2004 disaster, had been included in the tsunami warning Saturday, but the country's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency said Sunday there was no tsunami risk for the archipelago as it was too far from the quake's epicenter.
On New Zealand's Chatham Islands earlier Sunday, officials reported a wave measured at 6.6 feet.
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.
Waters at Tutukaka, a coastal dive spot near the top of the North Island, looked like a pot boiling with the muddy bottom churning up as sea surges built in size through the morning, sucking sea levels below low water marks before surging back.
Australia's Bureau of Meteorology canceled its tsunami warning 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 in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Norfolk Island, about 1,000 miles northeast of Sydney.
New Zealand's Ministry of Civil Defense and Emergency Management downgraded its tsunami warning to an advisory status, which it planned to keep in place overnight.