HONOLULU — Tsunami waves swamped Hawaii beaches and brushed the U.S. western coast Friday but didn't immediately cause major damage after devastating Japan and sparking evacuations throughout the Pacific.
Kauai was the first of the Hawaiian islands struck by the tsunami, which was caused by an earthquake in Japan. Water rushed ashore at least 11 feet high near Kealakekua Bay, on the west side of the Big Island, and reached the lobby of a hotel. Flooding was reported on Maui, and water washed up on roadways on the Big Island.
Scientists and officials warned that the first tsunami waves are not always the strongest and said residents along the coast should watch for strong currents and heed calls for evacuation.
"The tsunami warning is not over," said Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie. "We are seeing significant adverse activity, particularly on Maui and the Big Island. By no means are we clear in the rest of the state as well."
High waters reached the U.S. western coast by 11:30 a.m. EST Friday, after evacuations were ordered and beaches closed all along the coast.
Fishermen in Crescent City, Calif., – where a tsunami in 1964 killed 11 people – fired up their crab boats and left the harbor to ride out an expected swell.
Sirens sounded for hours before dawn up and down the coast, and in Hawaii, roadways and beaches were empty as the tsunami struck. As sirens sounded throughout the night, most residents cleared out from the coasts and low-lying areas.
"I'm waiting to see if I'll be working and if I can get to work," said Sabrina Skiles, who spent the night at her husband's office in downtown Kahului in Maui. Their home, across the street from the beach, was in a mandatory evacuation zone. "They're saying the worst is over right now but we keep hearing reports saying 'don't go anywhere. You don't want to go too soon.'"
The tsunami, spawned by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan, slammed the eastern coast of Japan, sweeping away boats, cars, homes and people as widespread fires burned out of control. It raced across the Pacific at 500 mph – as fast as a jetliner – although tsunami waves roll into shore at normal speeds.
President Barack Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is ready to come to the aid of Hawaii and West Coast states as needed. Coast Guard cutter and aircraft crews were positioning themselves to be ready to conduct response and survey missions as soon as conditions allow.
It is the second time in a little over a year that Hawaii and the U.S. West coast faced the threat of a massive tsunami. A magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile spawned warnings on Feb. 27, 2010, but the waves were much smaller than predicted and almost no damage was reported.
Scientists acknowledged they overstated the threat but defended their actions, saying they took the proper steps and learned the lessons of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed thousands of people who didn't get enough warning.
Many islands in the Pacific evacuated after the warnings were issued, but officials told residents to go home because the waves weren't as bad as expected.
In Guam, the waves broke two U.S. Navy submarines from their moorings, but tug boats corralled the subs and brought them back to their pier. No damage was reported to Navy ships in Hawaii.
The warnings issued by the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center covered an area stretching the entire western coast of the United States and Canada from the Mexican border to Chignik Bay in Alaska.
In the Canadian pacific coast province of British Columbia, authorities evacuated marinas, beaches and other areas.
In Alaska, a dozen small communities along the Aleutian Island chain were on alert, but there were no reports of damage from a wave just over 5 feet.
Officials in two coastal Washington counties used an automated phone alert system, phoning residents on the coast and in low-lying areas and asking them to move to higher ground.
"We certainly don't want to cry wolf," said Sheriff Scott Johnson of Washington's Pacific County. "We just have to hope we're doing the right thing based on our information. We don't want to be wrong and have people hurt or killed.
In Oregon, sirens blasted in some coastal communities and at least one hotel was evacuated in the northern part of the state. Restaurants, gift shops and other beachfront business stayed shuttered, and schools up and down the coast were closed.
Rockne Berge, owner of By The Sea Motel in Port Orford, on Oregon's southern coast, said he saw a band of wet sand about 50 yards wide – an indication of a wave larger than usual. People found viewpoints on bluffs above the beach to watch the waves, he said.
"It looks like a mall parking lot at a Christmas sale," he said.
In Santa Cruz, Calif., retreating waves broke loose a couple of boats and a dock, but surfers who raced to the beach to catch the waves were undeterred.
"The tides are right, the swell is good, the weather is good, the tsunami is there. We're going out," said William Hill, an off-duty California trooper.
Latin American governments ordered islanders and coastal residents to head for higher ground. First affected would be Chile's Easter Island, in the remote South Pacific, about 2,175 miles west of the capital of Santiago, where people planned 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.
The tsunami warning was issued Friday at 3:31 a.m. EST. Sirens were sounded about 30 minutes later in Honolulu alerting people in coastal areas to evacuate. About 70 percent of Hawaii's 1.4 million population resides in Honolulu, and as many as 100,000 tourists are in the city on any given day.
On Friday, the Honolulu International Airport remained open but seven or eight jets bound for Hawaii have turned around, including some originating from Japan, the state Department of Transportation said. All harbors are closed and vessels were ordered to leave the harbor.
Honolulu's Department of Emergency Management has created refuge areas at community centers and schools, and authorities on Kauai island have opened 11 schools to serve as shelters for those who have left tsunami inundation zones.
A small 4.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Big Island just before 5 a.m. EST, but there were no reports of damages and the quakes weren't likely related, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey said.
Dennis Fujimoto said early Friday that the mood is calm but concerned on the island of Kauai while people readying for the tsunami.
Long lines formed at gas stations and people went to Wal-Mart to stock up on supplies.
"You got people walking out of there with wagonloads of water," he said.
The worst big wave to strike the U.S. was a 1946 tsunami caused by a magnitude of 8.1 earthquake near Unimak Islands, Alaska, that killed 165 people, mostly in Hawaii. In 1960, a magnitude 9.5 earthquake in southern Chile caused a tsunami that killed at least 1,716 people, including 61 people in Hilo. It also destroyed most of that city's downtown. On the U.S. mainland, a 1964 tsunami from a 9.2 magnitude earthquake in Prince William Sound, Alaska, struck Washington State, Oregon and California. It killed 128 people, including 11 in Crescent City, Calif.
Associated Press Writers contributing to this report include Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu, Denise Petski in Los Angeles, Kathy McCarthy in Seattle, Nigel Duara in Seaside, Ore., Jeff Barnard in Crescent City, Calif., Rob Gillies in Toronto, Alicia Chang in Pasadena, Calif., Michelle Price and Carson Walker in Phoenix. Niesse contributed from Ewa Beach, Hawaii.