SENDAI, Japan (Reuters) - Tsunami waves of up to 1.5 meters (5 feet) hit far-flung Pacific regions from the Russian far east and Japan to New Zealand’s Chatham Islands on Sunday after a powerful earthquake struck Chile, but there were no reports of injuries or serious damage.
Hundreds of thousands of residents in Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines and Russia’s Kamchatka were told to evacuate after one of the world’s strongest quakes in a century hit Chile on Saturday, killing more than 300 people.
Japanese officials had warned that tsunami waves of 3 meters or more could strike the country’s Pacific coast and ordered or advised around 630,000 households to evacuate.
“I feel the power of nature. The tsunami is coming from thousands of kilometers away,” said Akio Yone, a 70-year-old retired fisherman, as he watched from high ground on a chilly, windy evening on the outskirts of Sendai, northern Japan.
The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) put the country’s highest tsunami at 1.2 meters in the port of Kuji, northeast Japan. Smaller waves hit a swathe of the country from the small island of Minamitori 1,950 km (1,200 miles) south of Tokyo to Hokkaido island in the north.
The JMA later downgraded its warning of a “major tsunami” to a tsunami of around 2 meters, but said residents should not let down their guard. “Carelessness could be the biggest enemy,” Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told reporters earlier in the day.
It was Japan’s first major tsunami warning in 17 years and only the fourth since 1952, the JMA said.
Train services were halted in many areas along the Pacific coast, many highways were closed and there was minor flooding.
Two nuclear plants in the area were operating normally and Japan’s Nippon Oil Corp said its 145,000 barrel-per-day Sendai refinery was also functioning as usual.
Police cars and fire trucks patrolled coastal roads and fishing boats, seeking to avoid any tsunami, headed out to sea under gray skies, with snow flurries in some areas.
Japan is no stranger to tsunamis.
In 1896, a magnitude 8.5 earthquake and tsunami left more than 22,000 dead in northeastern Japan. Another of magnitude 8.1 hit the same region in 1933, killing 3,064.
In May 1960, a tsunami struck the coasts of Hokkaido and other northern Pacific coastal areas after an earthquake in Chile, killing around 140 people.
Since then, many harbors have had sea gates installed to try to protect from tsunami and storms.
Tadao Saito, 77, recalled the 1960 tsunami as he pointed to the sea from high ground in a coastal town near Sendai.
“At that time we could see the bottom of the sea,” he said. “A lighthouse was pushed over, and lumber and barrels were washed away, and the wave was very fast. But compared with that, it is a small wave today.”
The first waves to hit New Zealand were reported at the remote Chatham Islands, around 800 kilometers (500 miles) east of New Zealand, with surges of up to 1.5 meters measured, the Civil Defense Ministry said.
A resident on one of the smaller islands in the group, Pitt, said the surges were continuing and getting bigger.
“The bay empties right out. It takes about a minute and a half and then it surges back in, in about the same amount of time,” Bernadette Malinson told Radio New Zealand. “The surges have been getting bigger — at least 2 meters at present.”
Authorities in Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka region lifted a tsunami alert after a series of small waves appeared to cause no damage, a spokeswoman for the Emergencies Ministry said.
A tsunami hit beaches in eastern Australia but there were no initial reports of damage. Officials issued an alert for most of the east coast and eastern parts of the island state of Tasmania, but said there were no concerns about major inundation.
The Philippines canceled a tsunami alert on the eastern seaboard after the threat dissipated.
Hawaii dodged serious damage on Saturday when a tsunami merely lapped ashore, although residents were warned to stay away from coastal areas because the ocean could remain unsettled for several more hours.
Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota, Elaine Lies, Osamu Tsukimori, and Chisa Fujioka; writing by Linda Sieg; editing by Philippa Fletcher