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Small tsunami waves hit Hawaii after Canada earthquake

It may not have been a hurricane, but an earthquake and tsunami warning worried state agencies along the West Coast. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

Updated at 6:23 p.m. ET: Hawaii state officials on Sunday canceled a tsunami advisory prompted by a powerful earthquake off the Canadian coast that sent thousands of people fleeing to higher ground. No major damage was reported.

The advisory was canceled shortly before 4 a.m. local time after the anticipated waves rolled in lower than expected, according to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.   

Kevin Richards, earthquake and tsunami manager for Hawaii State Civil Defense, said water, gas and power lines were not damaged by the smaller-than-expected waves.    

Eugene Tanner / AP

Visitors and Oahu residents watch the water level in the Ala Wai Harbor in Hawaii for the arrival of a tsunami on Saturday.

"Everything is normal,'' Richards said. "We're in good shape with this one.''

Gov. Neil Abercrombie said the Aloha State was lucky to avoid more severe surges.

"We're very, very grateful that we can go home tonight counting our blessings," Abercrombie said.

The tsunami began shortly after 10:30 p.m. Hawaii time (4:30 a.m. ET), according to the  Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, as motorists clogged roadways in a mass exodus from low-lying areas. 

"The tsunami arrived about when we expected it should," senior geophysicist Gerard Fryer told reporters at a news conference, saying: "I was expecting it to be a little bigger." 

 Officials earlier warned locals to treat the threat as very serious.

"This is obviously a very, very dangerous situation," Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle told Hawaii News Now earlier as officials were urging residents to move away from the coastline immediately. 

Fryer said the largest wave in the first 45 minutes of the tsunami was measured in Maui at more than 5 feet -- about 2 feet higher than normal sea levels.   

Tsunami warning sirens in the islands were activated on short notice due to initial confusion among scientists about the quake's undersea epicenter and the extent of the tsunami threat posted by the temblor.

Carlisle earlier announced that all police and emergency personnel were being pulled out from potential flood zones shortly before the first wave, leaving anyone defying evacuation orders to fend for themselves. He urged motorists who remained caught in harm's way due to gridlocked roads to abandon their vehicles and proceed on foot. 

"If you are stuck in traffic, you might consider getting out of your car and consider walking to higher ground. You will have to assess your own situation, depending on where you are right now. Right now it is critical," he said.

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Abercrombie issued an emergency proclamation for the state.

Canada quake
The warnings followed an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.7 that hit Canada's Pacific coastal province of British Columbia late on Saturday. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was centered 123 miles south-southwest of Prince Rupert at a depth of 6.2 miles. 

Carsten Ginsburg, who lives in the small community of Bella Coola southeast of Prince Rupert, said the quake lasted about 40 seconds.

"It shook everything. The electricity went out, the power lines were swinging all over the place and stuff was falling off the shelves," he said, Canadian Press reported.

No major damage was reported.

The Earthquakes Canada agency said the quake was followed by dozens of aftershocks, including a 6.4 magnitude tremor that struck Sunday afternoon. 

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On Oahu, Hawaii's most populous island, tsunami warning sirens blared across Honolulu, the state capital, prompting an immediate crush of traffic, with many motorists stopping at service stations to top up with gasoline. At movie theaters, films were halted in mid-screening as announcements were made urging patrons to return to their homes. 

The last time Oahu had a tsunami warning was after the devastating Japanese earthquake of March 2011. 

NBC News' Wilson Rothman, who was staying on the island of Kauai, said that while there had been no noticeable rise in water levels, local officials and hotel staff had taken precautions. 

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"Non-essential hotel functions were shut down fast, and restaurants across the island closed early," he said.  "Our hotel asked all guests to evacuate 'vertically' to the 4th, 5th or 6th floor, and asked guests on those floors to 'make new friends'."

On Honolulu's famed Waikiki Beach, residents of high-rise buildings were told to move to the third floor or higher for safety. 

Stephany Sofos, a resident of Diamond Head near Waikiki, said most people had either evacuated or relocated to a higher floor. 

"I moved my car up the hill, packed up my computer and have my animals all packed and with me," Sofos said, saying that she had not yet seen any obvious receding of the surf, a telltale sign that a tsunami wave is imminent. 

External link: Tsunami messages issued in the past 7 days

"I'm pretty confident because we have a lot of reefs out there and that will prevent any major damage. Maybe it's a false confidence, but I'm not really worried," she said, adding, "It is nerve-wracking." 

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service canceled tsunami advisories for Canada and Oregon.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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