Honolulu, Hawaii (CNN) — A tsunami generated by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile struck Hawaii Saturday, but an official with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said the island chain “dodged a bullet” after smaller-than-expected waves were reported.
The first waves of the tsunami were recorded on The Big Island around noon (5 p.m. ET), 16 hours after the Chilean temblor.
Gauges showed water levels rising 3 feet in Hilo, and remaining at that level.
“It’s almost the best sort of tsunami you can possibly have, one that’s big enough that everyone sees that something happened, but not big enough to cause any damage,” said Gerald Fryer, a geophysicist with the warning center.
He cautioned, however, that the center would not give the all-clear until activity in the water decreased.
“But it’s beginning to look like we escaped sort of with the skin of our teeth,” he added.
The arrival of the tsunami waves was preceded by receding water that exposed reefs and churned up silt.
Earlier, Hawaiian residents 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 were moving guests to higher ground.
At Honolulu’s Hilton Waikoloa Hotel, guests with cars headed inland and buses moved hundreds of others to a nearby evacuation center.
At supermarkets, residents stocked up on essentials like water and toilet paper in anticipation of the high waters. One sign at a local store limited families to two cases of Spam.
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Beaches that would normally be crowded with sunbathers at midday on a Saturday were deserted. Commercial and recreational vessels seeking safe waters lined up a mile off the coast.
County sirens were sounding hourly “to alert residents and visitors to evacuate coastal areas,” Hawaii’s Civil Defense Division said in a statement.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning, the highest level of a tsunami alert, for the entire Pacific region, including countries as far away as Russia, Japan and Australia.
California and Alaska are under a tsunami advisory.
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 and boats littering the docks.
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.
Speaking Saturday afternoon in Washington, President Barack Obama urged people in Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa, also under a tsunami warning, to prepare.
“We can’t control nature, but we can and must be prepared for disaster when it strikes,” he said in a brief statement at the White House.
He told residents along the U.S. west coast to be prepared as well, as “there may be dangerous waves and currents throughout the day.”