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Thousands begin evacuating in Japan as threat of tsunami nears

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Japan evacuates coast, fear tsunami
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Japan preps for waves that could reach 9 feet high
  • Tsunami warnings lifted for most of the Pacific Rim
  • Pacific Tsunami Warning Center earlier canceled warning for Hawaii
  • The warning for Japan primarily affects fishing areas and tourist areas

Tokyo, Japan (CNN) -- Tens of thousands of residents began evacuating Sunday morning from coastal Japan in anticipation of a possible tsunami following Chile's 8.8-magnitude earthquake.

The northern part of the main island was looking at the possibility of a tsunami at least 9 feet high, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency.

Rail service was halted in coastal areas and residents were urged to evacuate low-lying areas of the island nation.

The warning primarily affected fishing areas and tourist areas; major cities like Tokyo, which is inland, were not affected.

Sunday's alert was Japan's first major tsunami warning in more than 15 years, the agency reported.

A tsunami spawned by Chile's 1960 earthquake killed 140 people in Japan.

On Saturday, tsunami warnings from Chile's temblor initially covered the entire Pacific region, but they were canceled less than 18 hours later except for Russia, Japan and the Philippines.

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The Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology issued a Level-2 tsunami alert for the east coast of the Philippines.

A Level-2 alert means people are advised to stay away from the shoreline; residents near coastal areas facing the Pacific Ocean are advised to go farther inland.

Meanwhile, an official with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said the island chain of Hawaii "dodged a bullet" after smaller-than-expected waves were reported.

Coast Guard crews said they had found no significant damage to ports or waterways as a result of the tsunami.

"There was no assessment of any damage in any county, which is quite remarkable," said Gov. Linda Lingle, who said witnesses had reported seeing "dramatic surges going on in the ocean."

The only airport that was shut, the Hilo airport on Hawaii, reopened late in the afternoon.

"If people have a confirmed reservation they can go to the airport now and they will be able to catch their flights," Lingle said.

The center also canceled warnings for Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Antarctica, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Pitcairn, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, French Polynesia, Mexico, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Kermadec Island, Niue, New Zealand, Tonga, American Samoa, Jarvis Island, Wallis-Futuna, Tokelau, Fiji, Australia, Palmyra Island, Pojnston Island, Marshall Island, Midway Island, Wake Island, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Howland-Baker, New Caledonia, Solomon Island, Nauru, Kosrae, Papua New Guinea, Pohnpei, Chuuk, Marcus Island, Indonesia, North Marianas, Guam, Yap, Belau, Philippines and Taiwan.

Earlier, Hawaiian residents had scrambled to stock up on water, gas and food as sirens pierced the early morning quiet across the islands ahead of the tsunami.

Roads to beaches and other low-lying areas were closed and seaside hotels moved guests to higher ground.

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Tsunami waves came ashore along the Chilean coast shortly after the earthquake, U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Victor Sardina told CNN.

He said the largest was 9 feet near the quake's epicenter. Another wave, 7.7 feet, hit the Chilean town of Talcahuano, according to Eric Lau of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

Video from the town showed one car sitting in a large expanse of water, boats littering the docks and widespread flood damage.

A large wave on the island of Juan Fernandez -- 400 miles (643 km) off Chile's coast -- killed three people, Provincial Governor Ivan De La Maza said. Ten people were missing.

Navigational buoys in Ventura County, California, sustained minor damage as a result of a 2-foot surge and waves, according to the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center. The Ventura County Fire Department had one report of damage to a resident's dock from the surge.

In 1960, the tsunami triggered by the Chilean earthquake destroyed much of downtown Hilo and killed 61 people, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The earthquake had a magnitude between 8.25 and 8.5, the USGS said, and the waves in Hilo Bay reached 35 feet, but only 3 to 17 elsewhere.

CNN's Kyung Lah, Mike Ahlers, Thelma Gutierrez, Carey Bodenheimer and Junko Ogura contributed to this report

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