Around the Pacific, panic gives way to uneasy relief

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The Independent Online

The Japanese tsunami travelled thousands of miles to hit islands and mainland coastlines across the Pacific Ocean and was feared to have killed a man in the US last night.

The man was swept out to sea while taking photographs of the tsunami striking the Californian coast at the mouth of the Klamath River. Docks and boats were damaged at Crescent City and $2m (£1.24m) of damage was estimated to have been caused at Santa Cruz. In Chile thousands of people were evacuated from coastal areas with wave heights of up to 3m (10ft) expected at Easter Island. About 1,500 people were evacuated to higher ground on the island and many more were moved to safety from low-lying coastal regions of the mainland.

Chile was especially sensitive to the tsunami threat having been struck by an earthquake and giant waves a year ago, which killed more than 500 people.

But for many the impact was weaker than had been feared. Alerts in Indonesia, Taiwan, New Zealand and the Marshall Islands were lifted when it was clear little damage would be done. Waves almost 2m (6ft) higher than usual were recorded in Hawaii but did little more than swamp beaches.

Roads and beaches in Hawaii's Waikiki and other areas were deserted when the first tsunami struck, having been evacuated earlier. Hawaiian airports closed, and the US Navy ordered all warships in Pearl Harbor to remain in port to support rescue missions if necessary.

"They're going to be coming in with high currents. They can pick up boulders from the sea floor... They can pick up cars. They can pick up fuel tanks – those things just become battering rams," said Chip McCreery, director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Many other countries, including Guam and Thailand, warned citizens to expect the worst but survived unscathed.

Police in Tonga said water surged into a number of houses in the low-lying Ha'apai islands early on Saturday morning but injuries and significant damage were avoided. Radio Tonga reported that thousands of people in the capital, Nuku'alofa, sought refuge at the king's residence on higher ground.

Australia – which had been on an initial list of at-risk countries – reassured its citizens that they were not in danger. New Zealand followed suit, although a warning remained in place for marine traffic. Tidal surges up to 26 inches (66cms) high were reported in American Samoa, Nauru, Saipan and at the far northern tip of New Zealand.