A tsunami spawned by an earthquake in Canada sent waves and fear thousands of miles away to Hawaii, where some residents scrambled to higher land and prepared for a fierce impact.
While the waves that lashed Hawaii early Sunday may have been smaller than originally feared, the danger has not yet passed, officials said.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center had forecast waves between 3 and 7 feet, and all Hawaii islands were at risk of impact.
But the first waves to hit Honolulu didn’t seem much stronger than usual.
Scientists said don’t be fooled by the initial waves, which often aren’t the biggest.
“It’s not just one wave, it’s a succession of waves,” Gerard Fryer, senior geophysicist at the center, told reporters. He said the tsunami could last for hours.
Hawaii State Civil Defense said Wailoa Harbor, on the Big Island, reported a series of 4-foot waves every six minutes.
Even a 3-foot wave could flood several blocks from the shore, Fryer said.
“It probably wouldn’t knock the buildings down, but it would flood them. Everything on the ground would be bascially destroyed by saltwater,” he said.
“A 3-foot wave coming into a narrow channel can rise up into a vertical wall, and that will knock you down and beat you up and maybe drown you.”
But he noted that the tsunami will not be as significant as the devastating quake and tsunami that killed thousands in Japan in March 2011.
Local television showed images of bumper-to-bumper traffic on roads leading from the coast to inner ground. About 80,000 people live in evacuations zones in the island of Oahu, the island where Honolulu is located.
John Cummings, spokesman for Honolulu Emergency Management, said officials have opened 26 centers for evacuees.
Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle urged residents who are already on higher ground to not clog traffic. Officials expressed concerns about emergency vehicles getting by in heavy traffic.
But the tsunami warning came at an unfortunate time — when thousands of revelers packed streets in Honolulu late Saturday for the annual Hallowbaloo festival.
As of early Sunday morning, the mayor said he did not want evacuated residents to return just yet. Carlisle said an “all-clear” message probably would not come until at least 3 a.m. (9 a.m. ET).
“You can’t really tell which wave is going to be packing the most punch, and sometimes it’s the second, third, or even the last one,” Carlisle said. “So it’s sort of a train wreck coming through slowly but surely, and you have to make sure that you have a very good idea that the worst is by you before you start sending people back into the areas that could be affected.”
Even Hawaiians accustomed to tsunami warnings spared no effort in bracing for the worst.
Honolulu resident Victoria Shioi filled her bathtub with water, set her refrigerator to the coldest setting and gathered candles in case of water or power outages.
“Also backed up my computer and put the external (hard drive) in the waterproof safe,” Shioi said.
The tsunami was spawned by a sizable earthquake in western British Columbia, prompting a local tsunami warning.
“A (magnitude) 7.7 is a big, hefty earthquake — not something you can ignore,” Fryer said. “It definitely would have done some damage if it had been under a city.”
Instead, the quake struck about 139 kilometers (86 miles) south of Masset on British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands. No major damage was reported.
The Alaska Tsunami Warning Center issued a warning for western British Columbia from Vancouver to the southern panhandle of Alaska.
Canadians as far as Prince Rupert on mainland British Columbia felt the quake.
Tanya Simonds said she felt like her house was “sliding back and forth on mud,” but didn’t see any damage from the tremor.
Shawn Martin was at a movie theater when the quake struck.
“It just felt like the seats were moving. It felt like someone was kicking your seat,” he said.
Martin said more than hundred cars headed toward a popular intersection in the city known for its higher ground.
Thousands of miles across the Pacific, residents in Hawaii did the same.
“The rest of the Pacific does not have to worry, but Hawaii does,” Fryer said.