Tsunami threat recedes from huge Pacific Ocean volcanic eruption

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — An undersea volcano erupted in spectacular fashion near the Pacific nation of Tonga on Saturday, sending large tsunami waves crashing across the shore and people rushing to higher ground. A tsunami advisory was in effect for Hawaii, Alaska and the U.S. Pacific coast, with reports of waves pushing boats up in the docks in Hawaii.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or the extent of the damage because all internet connectivity with Tonga was lost at about 6:40 p.m. local time — about 10 minutes after problems began, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis for the network intelligence firm Kentik.

Tonga gets its internet via an undersea cable from Suva, Fiji, which presumably was damaged. The company that manages that connection, Southern Cross Cable Network, could not immediately be reached for comment.

In Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reported waves slamming ashore from half a meter (a foot) in Nawiliwili, Kauai, to 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) in Hanalei.

On Tonga, video posted to social media showed large waves washing ashore in coastal areas, swirling around homes and buildings.

The National Weather Service in Honolulu posted video of the volcanic eruption.

In Hawaii, Alaska and along the U.S. Pacific coast, residents were asked to move away from the coastline to higher ground and pay attention to specific instructions from their local emergency management officials, said Dave Snider, tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska.

New Zealand’s military said it was monitoring the situation and remained on standby, ready to assist if asked.

Satellite images showed a huge eruption, a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a mushroom above the blue Pacific waters.

The Tonga Meteorological Services said a tsunami warning was declared for all of the archipelago, and data from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center showed waves of 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) had been detected.

Residents of American Samoa were alerted of the tsunami warning by local broadcasters as well as church bells that rang territory-wide. An outdoor siren warning system was out of service. Those living along the shoreline quickly moved to higher ground.

As night fell, there were no reports of any damage and the Hawaii-based tsunami center canceled the alert.

Authorities in the nearby island nations of Fiji and Samoa also issued warnings, telling people to avoid the shoreline due to strong currents and dangerous waves. The Japan Meteorological Agency said there may be a slight swelling of the water along the Japanese coasts, but it was not expected to cause any damage.

The Islands Business news site reported that a convoy of police and military troops evacuated Tonga’s King Tupou VI from his palace near the shore. He was among the many residents who headed for higher ground.

The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano was the latest in a series of spectacular eruptions.

A Twitter user identified as Dr. Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau posted video showing waves crashing ashore.

“Can literally hear the volcano eruption, sounds pretty violent,” he wrote, adding in a later post: “Raining ash and tiny pebbles, darkness blanketing the sky.”

Earlier, the Matangi Tonga news site reported that scientists observed massive explosions, thunder and lightning near the volcano after it started erupting early Friday. Satellite images showed a 5-kilometer (3 mile) -wide plume rising into the air to about 20 kilometers (12 miles).

More than 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) away in New Zealand, officials were warning of storm surges from the eruption.

The National Emergency Management Agency said some parts of New Zealand could expect “strong and unusual currents and unpredictable surges at the shore following a large volcanic eruption.”

The volcano is located about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of the capital, Nuku’alofa. Back in late 2014 and early 2015, a series of eruptions in the area created a small new island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.

Tonga is home to about 105,000 people.

On California’s central coast, the National Weather Service reported tsunami waves up to 4 feet (1.2 meters) and flooding in beach parking lots at Port San Luis. About 200 miles (320 km) down the coast, the waves were much smaller at Southern California’s Seal Beach, according to Michael Pless, the owner of M&M Surf School.

“The waves are looking pretty flat,” Pless said. “We’re hoping they reopen the beach in a couple hours.”

Crowds gathered at the Santa Cruz Harbor in California to watch the rising and falling water strain boat ties on docks. Law enforcement tried to clear people away when big surges started at around 7:30 a.m.

About an hour later, a surge went over the back lip of the harbor, filling a parking lot and low-lying streets and setting some cars afloat. In 2011 after the Japanese earthquake a series of surges cost $20 million of damage in the harbor.

Although experienced surfers would consider the waves reaching the West Coast barely high enough to qualify as swells, the National Weather Service warned that tsunamis cause deceptive water surges powerful enough to pull people out to sea.

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