Tsunami scare: Hawaii spared, US west coast still at risk

Thousands evacuated in California; US official: "You're never sure until the waves come in"; alerts issued in Latin America, Canada.

japan earthquake graph_311 reuters (photo credit: Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)
japan earthquake graph_311 reuters
(photo credit: Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)
Thousands of people fled their homes along the California coast on Friday as a tsunami triggered by the massive earthquake in Japan began hitting the US West Coast after rolling through Hawaii.
Initial reports from US civil defense officials and residents of coastal communities suggested the force of the tsunami, a giant wall of water, had dissipated as it sped across the Pacific Ocean toward North America.
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The massive 8.9 magnitude quake in Japan triggered tsunami warnings for most of the Pacific basin. Advisories or warnings were in effect from Canada all the way down the Pacific coast of South America.
Tidal surges in the Hawaiian island chain were generally little higher than normal, officials said, and there were no reports of injuries or severe inland property damage.
An Obama administration official said Hawaii appeared to be out of danger, but some risk remained for the US West Coast.
"I think the enormous fears that were there hours ago, for some of us hours ago, has diminished greatly, which is quite a relief for all of us," White House chief of staff Bill Daley said.
"There's always the possibility that something may happen after, so people are watching it now," he added.
Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was more cautious. "The problem is you're never sure until the waves come in," he told CNN.
Tsunami waves crashing ashore in the northern Californian city of Crescent City were more than 6 feet (2 meters), the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.
"They are starting to roll in," said Jordan Scott, spokesman for the California Emergency Management Agency. He cautioned it could take 10 to 12 hours for the effects of the quake to completely fade.
Thousands of residents were being evacuated along the California coast, including some 6,000 near the surfing town of Santa Cruz, civil defense officials said.
Scott said people were also being evacuated in Del Norte and San Mateo counties. Del Norte is the northernmost California coastal county and San Mateo includes much of Silicon Valley, although the technology center is well inland.
Authorities in the neighboring state of Oregon closed schools along the coast and advised residents to evacuate.
Sirens blare in Hawaii
In Hawaii, 3,800 miles (6,200 km) from Japan, the main airports on at least three of the major islands -- Maui, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii -- were shut down as a precaution, and the US Navy ordered all warships in Pearl Harbor to remain in port to support rescue missions as needed.
Civil defense sirens blared statewide, starting shortly before 10 p.m. local time, and police with bullhorns urged residents near shore to higher ground.
John Cummings, a spokesman for emergency management in Honolulu, said no injuries or property damage had been reported after a series of four tsunami waves had hit the Hawaii's capital or the rest of the island of Oahu.
Alerts issued in Chile
Ecuador took extreme precautions after President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency across the Andean nation on national television and urged residents to move inland.
The area at risk includes the Galapagos Islands -- a popular tourist destination known for its incredible wildlife, including endangered species, that inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin's evolution theory in the 19th century.
On Easter Island, a Chilean territory in the South Pacific, authorities planned to move residents to higher ground, in preparation for a possible tsunami on Friday afternoon.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, whose country was hit by a 8.8 magnitude quake and ensuing tsunamis that killed more than 500 people a year ago, told Chileans to remain alert.
Peruvian officials said they were waiting until late afternoon to decide if they would order evacuations from low-lying coastal areas such as the port city of Callao.
Many ports along Mexico's western coast were closed, including Los Cabos and Salina Cruz in southern Oaxaca, the only oil-exporting terminal on the country's Pacific side.
Canada advised authorities in parts of British Columbia to evacuate marinas, beaches and other low-lying areas.