Hawaii was caught a bit by surprise Saturday night when an earthquake off the coast of British Columbia generated a tsunami that officials decided was headed straight for the islands.

The 7.7 magnitude earthquake occurred just after 5 p.m. Hawaii time and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center initially said there was no threat to Hawaii. That changed about two hours later, however, and emergency preparations began to take place in earnest. Evacuations were ordered and refuge centers opened at schools and parks. Airports closed on neighbor islands and some airlines cancelled or delayed flights.

Still, many people didn’t know anything was amiss until tsunami warning sirens began to sound throughout the state about 8 p.m. Officials predicted the waves would begin to hit at 10:28 p.m., saying it would be about the same time on every island.

Residents and visitors in the designated tsunami inundation zones were ordered to evacuate. That included all of the bustling Waikiki area. Hawaii Tourism Authority director Mike McCartney estimated there were about 100,000 tourists on Oahu — 175,000 total in Hawaii.

Restaurants ushered people out and sent their staffs home. At the Prince Hotel, a wedding reception ended prematurely as guests hurried out to beat the traffic. In Ala Wai Harbor, several hundred boats were on the move as their owners took them out to sea to ride out any potential surge. Last year, a tsunami surge was enough to sink a handful of boats there.

Gov. Neil Abercombie declared an emergency saying a “natural disaster … is imminent and is expected to cause extensive damage” throughout the islands. The official state of emergency was to remain in effect until Oct. 31.

On Oahu, police and emergency personnel closed roads along the beaches and then at 10 p.m. they pulled back as well.

The first waves did indeed begin to hit right about 10:30 p.m. but were much smaller than had been anticipated. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center had predicted 7-foot waves but as of midnight the several waves that had rolled in were no higher than about 2.5 feet.

That prompted Gerald Fryer, senior geophysicist of the tsunami center, to tell reporters that the evacuation probably hadn’t been necessary but it was better to be safe than sorry.

Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle went on television about 11:30 p.m. to urge people to stay away from the evacuation zones and not to return to their homes until the all clear was finally sounded. He said that likely wouldn’t be until well after midnight, perhaps even daybreak, as officials waited to see if the tsunami danger had truly passed. Scientists say that often the biggest waves don’t roll through until hours after the first waves hit.

But even at 12:30 a.m. Sunday, Carlisle said the city was in a holding pattern and held back on issuing an all clear because of “some indications of wave activity continuing…on the Big Island.”

The tsunami warning center reported 4-foot oscillations continuing at Wailoa Harbor near Hilo.

Carlisle said that people who were upset they weren’t being allowed back home needed to be patient.

“I understand this is an unpleasant thing to have to do,” Carlisle said. “But we’d much rather err on the side of safety rather than lose any of your lives.”

The tsunami warning center later announced at 1:10 a.m. that it had downgraded the tsunami warning to an advisory.

“We can go home. We can count our blessings here,” Abercrombie told reporters.

The last time Hawaii was hit by a tsunami was March 2011 when Japan suffered a devastating 9.0 earthquake that killed more than 15,000 people, damaged nuclear power plants and generated a tsunami that ripped across the Pacific. The Big Island sustained the most damage then, although some harbors on other islands including Oahu sustained damage as well.

As of late Saturday, there were no reports of significant damage from anywhere in the state.

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