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Scientists defend tsunami warning

HONOLULU — The warning was ominous, its predictions dire: Oceanographers issued a bulletin telling Hawaii and other Pacific islands that a killer wave was heading their way with terrifying force and that "urgent action should be taken to protect lives and property."

But the devastating tidal surge predicted after Chile's magnitude-8.8 earthquake never materialized. By Sunday, authorities had lifted the warning after waves half the predicted size tickled the shores of Hawaii.

Scientists acknowledged they overstated the threat, but defended their actions, saying they took the proper steps and learned the lessons of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed thousands of people who didn't get enough warning.

"It's a key point to remember that we cannot under-warn. Failure to warn is not an option for us," said Dai Lin Wang, an oceanographer at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. "We cannot have a situation that we thought was no problem and then it's devastating. That just cannot happen."

Hundreds of thousands of people fled shorelines for higher ground Saturday in a panic that circled the Pacific Rim after scientists warned 53 nations and territories of the tsunami.

At least five people were killed by the tsunami on Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile's coast, and huge waves devastated the port city of Talcahuano, near hard-hit Concepcion on Chile's mainland.

But the threat of monster waves that left Hawaii's beaches empty for hours never appeared — a stark contrast to the tidal surge that killed 230,000 people around the Indian Ocean in 2004 and flattened entire communities.

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 hitting a small northern island, with no indications of damage.

And in Japan, where authorities ordered 400,000 people out of coastal communities, the biggest wave was a 4-foot surge that hit the northern island of Hokkaido, flooding some piers.

Still, scientists offered no apologies for the warning and defended their work, all while worrying that the false alarm could lead to complacency among coastal residents — a disastrous possibility in the earthquake-prone Pacific Rim.

Despite some of the panic in Hawaii, public officials called the evacuation "perfect" and said it was a good test case that proved the system worked.

"I hope everyone learned from this for next time, and there will be a next time," said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the warning center.

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