MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Nations surrounding the Pacific Ocean on Saturday braced for a tsunami that could unleash tidal waves on their shores, testing the response-mechanisms built up following the 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean.
From Alaska to Peru, Japan to Papua New Guinea, governments scrambled to emergency meetings and put out warnings to coastal areas while geological and maritime teams threw all hands on deck to gather information.
The tsunami alert was put out after a massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake erupted in the south Pacific off the Chilean coast at 3:34 a.m. local time.
That quake was hundreds of times stronger than the 7.0-magnitude tremor that devastated Haiti in January. It was so powerful that it hammered the nearby town of Concepcion, brought down buildings 200 miles away in the capital Santiago and was felt across South America from Argentina to Ecuador.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet declared “a state of catastrophe,” in central Chile saying that more than 120 people are confirmed dead so far.
“Without a doubt, with an earthquake of this magnitude, there will be more deaths," Bachelet said. “People should remain calm … . We are doing everything we can with all the forces we have. Any information will be shared immediately."
President Barack Obama said the U.S. is ready to assist Chile in rescue and recovery efforts should it ask for help. "We can't control nature, but we can and must be prepared for disaster when it strikes," he said about the looming tsunami threat.
Experts reported that the quake had generated a dangerous swelling of waves across the Pacific basin.
The U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center based in Hawaii slammed its warning light to red — or severe — and advised governments in the region to respond.
“Sea level readings confirm that a tsunami has been generated which could cause widespread damage. Authorities should take appropriate action in response to this threat,” the center said.
“A tsunami is a series of waves and the first wave may not be the largest,” the center added. “Tsunami wave heights cannot be predicted. The time between one tsunami wave to the next can be five minutes to an hour.”
Included in the list of countries that could be affected by the tsunami were Mexico, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and almost all Central America.
The center’s warnings serve as advice to national governments, which have the sole authority to make decisions regarding the state of alert in their areas.
Mexico did not immediately evacuate any of the fishing villages, tourist resorts or industrial ports along its vast Pacific coast that stretches from California to Guatemala.
However, local civil protection officials said they were tracking the nearby sea movement.
“We are carefully monitoring the coastal zone. Up until now all is reported calm,” said Cesar Narvaez, who heads civil protection in the southern state of Oaxaca.
In Hawaii, officials blasted sirens from the early morning warning people to prepare for the waves that were predicted to hit close to midday local time. But it also stopped short of a full-scale evacuation.
In Panama, which contains the shortest point between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the government said it was on top alert.
“Panama is in a state of vigilance,” said Arturo Alvarado, who head of the National Civil Protection Agency.
Tsunami warnings bring back memories of the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, a 9.2-magnitude tremor that left some 230,000 dead in 14 countries, including Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Following that disaster, governments and international agencies have poured millions of dollars into bolstering response mechanisms and defenses.
The United States’ own Pacific Tsunami Warning Center doubled its staff from eight to 15 and kept its watch up to 24 hours a day from 2005.
U.S. Aid also put money into a regional Tsunami Early Warning System across Latin America.
The latest earthquake of Chile may be a test of how effective these systems are in saving lives from devastating waves.