By Jonathan Franklin And Mary Beth Sheridan
Sunday, February 28, 2010; A01
SANTIAGO, CHILE -- One of the most powerful earthquakes on record jolted central Chile on Saturday, smashing homes and bridges and unleashing tsunami waves that coursed across the Pacific, prompting alerts in Hawaii and dozens of countries. More than 300 people have died in the coastal South American nation.
Waves generated by the 8.8-magnitude quake started to smack Hawaiian beaches about noon local time, but they were smaller than the six-foot monsters scientists had feared. The water surged more than three feet in Kahului Bay in Maui before the tsunami warning was canceled in the early afternoon, officials said.
Hawaiian residents had awakened at dawn to the blast of emergency sirens. Police closed roads and roped off coastal areas, and thousands of people were evacuated. But there were no reports of flooding or damage, and by Saturday evening, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center had lifted its warning for the entire Pacific except for Russia and Japan.
After initially canceling its advisories, Japan issued "major" tsunami warnings Sunday morning for three northern provinces, ordering tens of thousands to evacuate and predicting that waves of nine feet or higher could strike by 1 p.m. local time, after this edition went to press.
Waves as high as six feet were expected to later reach Tokyo harbor and much of Japan's central and southern Pacific coasts.
The predawn quake that hit Chile was far stronger than the temblor that rocked Haiti last month. But far fewer people died in Chile because the quake was farther from big cities and occurred deeper underground -- nearly 22 miles beneath the surface. The epicenter was 200 miles southwest of the Chilean capital, Santiago, while the Haitian quake was centered just a few miles outside its capital, Port-au-Prince.
In addition, better building materials were used in Chile, one of the most developed Latin American countries. In poverty-stricken Haiti, more than 200,000 people perished as flimsy homes of cheap concrete disintegrated.
"The people in Chile have lots of experience with earthquakes. They've done an excellent job of preparing," said Paul Caruso, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Still, the disaster wreaked havoc. Highway overpasses, buildings and bridges collapsed into mounds of twisted metal and chunks of concrete. Roads in Santiago were webbed with cracks and studded with holes big enough to swallow a motorcycle. In Concepcion, the country's second-biggest city, 70 miles from the epicenter, firefighters struggled to rescue dozens of people from a 14-story building that pancaked.
Incoming President Sebastian Piñera, who is set to take office March 11, said the quake had dealt "a very serious blow to the infrastructure of our country" and asked key disaster-relief officials to delay their planned departures. Dozens of aftershocks rattled the country, further imperiling fragile buildings.
About 600 travelers at the Santiago airport escaped when massive sections of the roof caved in, glass shattered and water poured through the terminal. Huddled under counters and inside gift stores, the travelers watched the newly renovated airport crumble around them. "Although the runways were cleared for takeoffs and landings, the airport was closed because of the internal damage.
Hundreds of prisoners in the city of Chillan, about 230 miles south of Santiago, escaped when a retaining wall collapsed. Rioting prisoners clashed with prison guards, leaving three inmates dead.
Earthquake survivors told of being flung around buildings in the dark as the temblor struck at 3:34 a.m.
Elliott Yamin, a former "American Idol" finalist, was tweeting in his hotel room in the beach resort of Vina del Mar, about 90 miles from the epicenter, when the building began to shake.
"That's when I stood up and kind of headed toward my doorway, and opened my door. . . . I was yelling, 'Earthquake! Earthquake! Get out!' " he told CNN.
Yamin and another guest raced down the hallway as the building lurched. "It was like a movie," he said.
President Obama offered assistance to Chile in a brief televised statement in which he also urged Americans on the West Coast to heed tsunami warnings. A tsunami advisory -- less urgent than a warning -- was posted for the U.S. and Canadian west coast and coastal Alaska to alert people to dangerous currents.
The Chilean earthquake tied for the fifth-most-powerful since the beginning of the 20th century, according to David Applegate of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Massive waves stirred up by the earthquake caused several casualties in Chile. One wave crashed into the village of Iloca, on the central coast, sweeping away the police station and a craft market. A series of 10-foot waves later battered remote Robinson Crusoe Island, killing three people and leaving more than a dozen missing, said Guillermo de la Maza, director of Chile's national emergency agency.
But residents in other countries had ample warning about the rising seas, allowing them to evacuate low-lying areas. And as the waves began hitting islands throughout the Pacific, they proved weaker than feared. There were no early reports of damage as they reached Hawaii, American Samoa, Tahiti, Easter Island and New Zealand and headed toward Japan and Australia.
Nathan Becker, an oceanographer at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu, cautioned that the even after the tsunami had passed Hawaii, waves could continue to "bounce around between the islands for quite a while" and pose a hazard.
Hawaii took no chances as the tsunami loomed. Gov. Linda Lingle declared a state of emergency hours in advance, and put the National Guard on standby. Officials closed the international airport in Hilo, on the big island of Hawaii. Six Navy ships pulled out of Pearl Harbor to stay safe.
Islanders loaded up grocery carts with water, canned goods and flashlights and lined up at gas stations. State officials urged every person to have medicine, food and water to last as long as a week. Parks, zoos and golf courses closed. Tourists were evacuated to parking lots, malls and golf courses.
"This morning was a madhouse," said Shelly Ohno, a worker at a Sack 'n Save grocery in Hilo.
Franklin, a special correspondent, reported from Santiago, Sheridan from Washington. Staff writers Joel Achenbach, Rob Stein, Spencer S. Hsu in Washington, Blaine Harden in Tokyo, and special correspondent Anne-Marie O'Connor in Mexico City contributed to this report.