POSTED: 8:36 a.m. HST, Mar 11, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 9:43 a.m. HST, Mar 11, 2011
Tsunami waves brushed the U.S. western coast today but didn't cause major damage after devastating Japan and sparking evacuations throughout the Pacific.
Tsunami waves swamped Hawaii beaches and severely damaged harbors in California after devastating Japan and sparking evacuations throughout the Pacific.
Damage estimates in Crescent city were in the millions, and more boats and docks were hit in Santa Cruz on California’s central coast. Surges are expected throughout the afternoon.
“This is just devastating. I never thought I’d see this again,” said Ted Scott, a retired mill worker who lived in Crescent City when a 1964 tsunami killed 17 people on the West Coast, including 11 in his town. “I watched the docks bust apart. It buckled like a graham cracker.”
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 — before hitting Hawaii and the West Coast.
Sirens sounded for hours before dawn up and down the West Coast and roadways and beaches were mostly empty as the tsunami struck.
President Barack Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was ready to come to the aid of any U.S. states or territories needing help. 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 did little damage.
Scientists then 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.
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This time around, the warning went out within 10 minutes of the earthquake in Japan, said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu.
"We called this right. This evacuation was necessary," Fryer said. "There's absolutely no question, this was the right thing to do," he said.
The warnings issued by the tsunami 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.
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.
Albert Wood of Seaside, Ore., said he and his wife decided to leave their home late last night after watching news about the Japan quake. He, his wife and dozens of other people stood on a hilly area overlooking the tourist town to wait out the waves.
In Santa Cruz, Calif., retreating waves broke loose a couple of boats and a dock as the waves surged.
"Water was being sucked out of the harbor mouth, it was like a river," said tour boat operator Dan Haifley. "The water dropped, and we could see the sandy bottom of the harbor."
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.
Further north, fishermen moved crab boats to avoid the waves, taking no chances. A tsunami killed 11 people in 1964 in Crescent City, Calif.
Heavy swells have been rolling through the port and marinas of the Mexico’s Baja California resort of Cabo San Lucas. Some are several feet high, but no damage has been reported.
The Mexican navy says it had detected offshore swells of 2-1/3 feet related to the tsunami spawned by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan.
The swells appeared at least twice that high as they rocked boats in the harbor, but they have not topped the seawalls at marinas in Los Cabos.
Mexico earlier closed the cargo port of Manzanillo and officials say some ships have delayed entering ports to avoid possible problems.
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 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.