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Hawaii tsunami warning canceled after lower than expected waves

Hurricane Sandy is pictured off the east coast of Florida in this October 26, 2012 NASA handout satellite photo. REUTERS/NASA/Handout
Hurricane Sandy is pictured off the east coast of Florida in this October 26, 2012 NASA handout satellite photo. REUTERS/NASA/Handout

By Jorene Barut and Suzanne Roig

HONOLULU (Reuters) - Hawaii state officials on Sunday canceled a tsunami advisory prompted by a powerful earthquake off the Canadian coast that sent thousands of people fleeing to higher ground, but did not cause major damage.

The advisory was canceled shortly before 4 a.m. local time (1400 GMT) after the anticipated waves rolled in lower than expected, according to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

Kevin Richards, earthquake and tsunami manager for Hawaii State Civil Defense, said water, gas and power lines were not damaged by the smaller-than-expected waves.

"Everything is normal," Richards said. "We're in good shape with this one."

Tens of thousands of people fled shoreline areas on Saturday night following siren blasts and a tsunami warning from the center that waves as tall as 6 feet could hit in some places.

Scientists downgraded the warning to an advisory shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday (1100 GMT) and there were no reports of injuries, serious flooding or damage.

The highest wave measured 2.5 feet, and that hit Kahului harbor on the island of Maui, said Dr. Gerard Fryer, senior geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

All beaches were reopened on Oahu, the most populated island in Hawaii, on Sunday morning, Richards said. Beaches remained closed on the island of Hawaii, but were set to reopen shortly.

Tsunami warning sirens began blaring across the islands at about 8 p.m. on Saturday as state officials ordered a coastal evacuation, prompting a mass exodus that clogged roadways as motorists fled low-lying areas.

On Oahu, the sirens prompted an immediate crush of traffic in Honolulu, with many motorists stopping at service stations to top up with gasoline.

Vindell Hsu, a geophysicist at the tsunami warning center, said the evacuation affected an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people who live in Hawaii's coastal zones.

But residents and visitors resumed their daily lives around the state on Sunday. One woman, vacationing at a beachfront home in Kailua, Oahu, said this is the second time she has been evacuated from a tsunami warning.

"I do not think the state over-reacted at all," said Heidi Wilson, a San Diego resident. "I was blown away at the coordinated effort on all the islands. I felt secure with all the precautions."

The warnings followed a magnitude 7.7 earthquake that hit off Canada's Pacific coastal province of British Columbia late on Saturday.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was centered 123 miles south-southwest of Prince Rupert at a depth of 6.2 miles.

The Earthquakes Canada agency said the temblor was followed by numerous aftershocks as large as magnitude 4.6 and that a small tsunami had been recorded by a deep-ocean pressure sensor.

The last time Oahu had a tsunami warning was after the devastating Japanese earthquake of March 2011.

Fryer said scientists overestimated the wave sizes in part because deep ocean sensors had a bad angle on the tsunami. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center plans to carefully review the event.

"We have to see what worked and what didn't work ... and find ways to reduce unnecessary evacuations and still not miss anything," Fryer said.

(Additional reporting by Jolyn Rosa in Honolulu; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Stacey Joyce)

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