Reporting from Seattle — A tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake in Chile surged across Hawaii on Saturday, churning up sediment with minor waves and tidal surges, but causing no apparent damage.
The National Tsunami Warning Center canceled a tsunami alert that prompted the evacuation of nearly 100,000 residents and tourists and emptied the state's beaches on a warm, sunny weekend morning.
"I think we've dodged a bullet," Gerard Fryer of the National Tsunami Warning Center told reporters in Honolulu.
"We've been watching the gauges, and the wave heights are below danger levels everywhere." But he cautioned swimmers against returning to the ocean for at least several hours because of the danger of strong currents.
Surges were reported ranging from 1.7 feet to 6 feet from the waves, triggered by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile.
Fryer said the waves were only about half the size of what scientists had predicted would hit the islands, calling their relatively small size "our biggest surprise."
"We'll be looking into that -- it's been a long day," he said.
In retrospect, he said, "this is almost the best sort of tsunami you could possibly have," he said. "One that's big enough that everyone can see that something happened, but not big enough to cause any damage."
Witnesses on the Big Island, where the first of the waves hit, reported an apparent shallowing of the water at Hilo Bay, followed by fast-moving currents filled with sediment as water rushed in.
Other islands had similar reports. In Oahu, surfers were wading through shin-high water in areas that normally would be waist-deep before the current flowed back, according to local news reports.
At Kahului Harbor in Maui, residents said, sediment-laden waters flowed about 100 yards onshore.
Authorities said there were isolated reports of looting in low-lying areas that had been evacuated for hours.
Shortly after 6 a.m. local time, radio stations began broadcasting civil defense alerts, and sirens sounded.
Gov. Linda Lingle had signed an emergency disaster proclamation, and said she was preparing to take a National Guard helicopter to survey any damage.
"My overall impression is that the state is well-prepared," she said.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center had issued a Pacific-wide warning. An advisory, the lowest level of notice, was in effect for most of the West Coast of the U.S., including Alaska. Hawaii was expected to be among the hardest hit.
Half an hour before the tsunami was forecast to hit, Waikiki Beach was an eerie, nearly deserted scene. Cars lined the roads on higher ground, with onlookers, many of them in an apparently festive mood, gathering in good viewing spots. But tourists and beachgoers began flooding back from high ground once the warning was canceled shortly before 2 p.m.Earlier, President Obama made a statement at the White House announcing that the U.S. was preparing for a tsunami in the Pacific, especially in Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa. He also warned residents of the West Coast to be watchful and prepared for "dangerous waves and currents."
"Once again, we've been reminded of the awful devastation that can come at a moment's notice," Obama added. "We can't control nature, but we can and must be prepared for disaster when it strikes."
Los Angeles County fire officials did not warn people to stay off beaches. But National Weather Service meteorologists said harbors could see a little bit more turbulence. Minor damage to a dock was reported in Ventura.
Hilo on the Big Island was the first hit, but only by mild surges that apparently did not cause damage.
State officials said they were aided by a lengthy warning time and the fact that the waves were expected to hit during daylight hours.
Hotels woke guests early in the morning, many with refreshments in the lobby and buses waiting to take them to higher ground. Hotels on Waikiki were conducting a "vertical evacuation," moving guests to higher floors.
At the Maui Lu resort on Maalaea Bay, front office manager Jody Kazaanecki said she at first had trouble persuading guests to leave. Many were not convinced the tsunami warning was serious.
"Everyone on the oceanfront rooms, and now in the garden rooms too, has been encouraged to go to the safety zone," she said. Guests were being asked to walk about a quarter-mile to an area on the other side of the highway.
"People who didn't want to leave, I just told them, "I don't know much more to tell you. Will you please get to the safety zone, because once you leave, I can leave?' " Kazaanecki said.
Times staff writer Thomas H. Maugh II contributed to this report.