Small tsunami waves hit Japan after offshore earthquake


Wednesday, November 15th 2006, 6:34 am
By: News On 6


TOKYO (AP) _ A powerful undersea earthquake prompted tsunami warnings Wednesday for Japan, Russia and Alaska, but the danger passed after a series of tiny waves hit the northern Japanese coast.

Several thousand people fled to higher ground on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido. The waves, however, did not swell higher than 16 inches and rapidly diminished in size, and Japan's meteorological agency later withdrew its tsunami warning after about three hours, although it urged continued caution.

A tsunami warning posted for coastal areas of Alaska was later canceled, as were watches for Hawaii and the northern tip of British Columbia and precautionary advisories for the states of Washington, Oregon and California.

The agency told Japanese coastal residents to flee to higher ground after initially predicting that a 6 1/2-foot tsunami would hit the Pacific coast of its northernmost island of Hokkaido and main island of Honshu after 9:10 p.m. (7:10 a.m. EST).

A wave that hit the port of Nemuro on Hokkaido at 9:29 p.m. was measured at 16 inches, and live video from the area showed calm seas. A few minutes later, a second, 8-inch wave hit the nearby port of Kushiro, the agency said, and the waves got progressively smaller.

The Alaska Tsunami Warning Center said a 7.8-inch wave hit Shemya Island and a 3-inch wave hit Amchitka Island in the Aleutian chain.

A magnitude 9.1-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia on Dec. 26, 2004, caused a tsunami as high as 33 feet that killed at least 213,000 people in 11 countries.

Takeshi Hachimine, chief of the Japanese meteorological agency's earthquake and tsunami monitoring section, said aftershocks of Wednesday's quake could trigger more waves, but those are expected to pose little danger to Japan.

The quake struck at 6:15 a.m. EST with a preliminary magnitude of 8.1 about 245 miles east of the island known in Japan as Etorofu, which is about 110 miles northeast of Hokkaido, according to the Japanese meteorological agency.

Etorofu is one of four islands in the southern Kuril chain claimed by both Japan and Russia. Etorofu is known in Russia as Iturup.

A tsunami warning was issued for the Kurils and Sakhalin, a large island that lies between the Kuril chain and Russia's eastern coast, but was later lifted.

An official from the town of Shibetsu on Hokkaido, Kiyoshi Takimoto, told public broadcaster NHK that about 4,000 of the town's 6,100 residents lived along the coast and had been told to flee to higher ground. Takimoto said he didn't notice the quake.

The government set up an emergency task force at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office.

No damage or casualties were reported in Russia as a result of the quake, said Olga Shekhovtseva, chief spokeswoman for the Emergency Situations Ministry branch in the Sakhalin region, which includes the sparsely populated Kuril Islands.

The islands have rich natural resources but their population has plummeted to just 9,900, according to official statistics.

The ITAR-Tass agency reported that Russia's Pacific Fleet ships took refuge at their bases.

A tsunami warning was issued for a time for coastal areas of Alaska, and the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center advised people in low-lying coastal areas to be alert to instructions from officials.

A tsunami watch also was issued for Hawaii by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, and for the northern tip of British Columbia, and precautionary advisories were issued for coastal areas in Washington, Oregon and California. All were later lifted.

An official from the Japanese town of Shibetsu on Hokkaido, Kiyoshi Takimoto, told public broadcaster NHK that about 4,000 of the town's 6,100 residents lived along the coast and had been told to flee to higher ground.

Takimoto said he didn't notice the quake. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries, according to NHK.

In the city of Kushiro, fire department and city officials urged residents to move to safety, city official Masatoshi Sato said. Railway officials ordered local trains on Hokkaido to stop at nearby stations as a precautionary step, NHK said.

Nemuro official Masayuki Kikuchi said the city dispatched about 20 fire trucks and cars immediately after the alert to instruct coastal residents to evacuate. ``There was no panic,'' Kikuchi said. ``Residents made their way to higher ground, just like they do in our annual tsunami drill.''

The U.S. Geological Survey reported on its Web site that a 7.8-magnitude quake had been detected 275 miles east-northeast of the Kurils at a depth of 17.2 miles. Temblors of magnitude 7 are generally classified as major earthquakes, capable of widespread, heavy damage.

Tsunami waves, which are generated by earthquakes, are often barely noticeable in the ocean but can rise to great heights once they arrive at shore.

Japan is one of the world's most earthquake-prone countries because it sits atop four tectonic plates.

The Southern Kurils islands were occupied by the Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II. They are surrounded by rich fishing waters and are believed to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves. They also have gold and silver deposits.