Dozens of countries were put on alert and tens of thousands of people left their homes as the Japanese earthquake spread panic across the Pacific region.
While a 10-metre high tsunami swept away buildings, ships and cars in Japan, low-lying areas of countries from the Philippines to Peru were braced for the arrival of terrifying walls of water.
The largest waves headed south-west from Japan at about 500mph – as fast as a jetliner – and within seven hours a surge in sea levels was reported in Hawaii, almost 4,000 miles from the quake’s epicentre.
Worried residents stocked up on gas, bottled water, canned food and generators as water rushed ashore in Honolulu, swamping the beach in Waikiki and surging over a break wall but stopping short of the area’s high-rise hotels.
Early reports indicated that the damage was not as severe as first feared, although experts warned levels could rise as areas off the north-east coast of Japan were rocked by a series of aftershocks.
As residents in Hawaii’s coastal areas were sent to refuge areas and community centres and tourists moved to higher floors in hotels, Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) director Chip McCreery said the United States state’s harbours and inlets would be worst affected by the waves.
“They’re going to be coming in with high currents,” he said. “They can pick up boulders from the sea floor... they can pick up cars, they can pick up fuel tanks, those things become battering rams and so it just amplifies the destruction in a big tsunami.”
In a bulletin to governments of vulnerable countries, the PTWC warned that it could take several hours for the full extent of the destruction to emerge.
“A tsunami is a series of waves and the first wave may not be the largest,” it said.
“Tsunami wave heights cannot be predicted and can vary significantly along a coast due to local effects.
“The time from one tsunami wave to the next can be five minutes to an hour, and the threat can continue for many hours as multiple waves arrive.”
On the US West Coast, evacuations were ordered in parts of Washington and Oregon.
Fishermen left the harbour in Crescent City, California, where 11 people were killed by a tsunami in 1964, after officials predicted waves could be as high as seven feet.
Marinas and beaches were cleared in the Canadian province of British Columbia, where an advisory notice issued by the government warned that the tsunami would “potentially produce strong currents dangerous to those in or near the water”.
Similar evacuations were carried out on many Pacific islands, but officials later told residents to go home because the waves were not as bad as expected.
In the Philippines, seismologist Renato Solidum said waves barely rose to more than two feet in five provinces facing the Pacific.
Thousands of people fled their homes in Indonesia, but the country’s meteorology agency said waves of only four inches could be seen in North Sulawesi’s port of Bitung and the island of Halmahera.
By 5pm UK time tsunami alerts had been lifted in mainland New Zealand, where agencies are still dealing with the aftermath of last month’s earthquake in Christchurch, as well as Australia, China, Indonesia and the Philippines.
But warnings remained in place last night for several countries in Latin America including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru.
Experts expected one of the worst affected areas to be Chile’s Easter Island, in the remote South Pacific, where there were plans to evacuate the only town.
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency and ordered people on the Galapagos Islands and the coast of the mainland to seek higher ground.