Tsunami alert triggers panic in the Philippines

nortesd.jpgMANILA (Reuters) – Hundreds of residents of coastal towns in northern and central Philippines evacuated on Thursday despite official assurances that there was no threat of a tsunami following a major quake in the north Pacific.

Entire villages were abandoned as mobile telephone text messages from people warning of 40-foot (12-meter) waves caused panic among villagers after an estimated 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck 1,700 km (1,000 miles) northeast of Tokyo late on Wednesday.

Disaster officials had issued an alert level 2 — meaning coastal dwellers should be watchful — late on Wednesday after the quake but canceled the advisory shortly after midnight when no large waves occurred.

Hundreds of residents remain on higher ground, afraid to go home.

“We need a better advisory system,” Renato Solidum, head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, told a local radio station. “We need a clearer way of disseminating information. We don’t want people to panic.”

Small tsunami waves hit Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido just before 10 p.m. on Wednesday but there were no reports of more significant waves either in Japan or Russia’s sparsely populated Kurile islands.

Disaster officials advised coastal residents in Cagayan, Isabela and Quirino provinces in the northeastern Philippines to return home because there was no danger of giant waves hitting their communities.

But one woman told the radio station people were still fleeing the area. “Our neighbors are still packing and ready to go to nearby hills. There were only two families left here and we’re preparing to leave too.”

People feared a repeat of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami — Japanese for “harbor wave” — that killed or left missing up to 232,000 people in late 2004. The Philippines was not affected by that earthquake.

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