Chris Stewart, Associated Press
HONOLULU — Tsunami waves swamped Hawaii beaches and severely damaged harbors in California after devastating Japan and sparking evacuations throughout the Pacific.
Water rushed up on roadways and into hotel lobbies on the Big Island and low-lying areas in Maui were flooded as 7-foot waves crashed ashore. Large waves also hit the U.S. western coast, shaking loose boats that weren't moved in time and tearing apart wooden docks in at least two California harbors.
"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 waves didn't make it over a 20-foot break wall protecting the rest of the city, and no serious injuries or home damage was immediately reported.
Scientists warned that the first tsunami waves are not always the strongest, and officials said people in Hawaii and along the West Coast should remain vigilant. Still, the tsunami warning was downgraded to an advisory in Hawaii, and Gov. Neil Abercrombie said the islands were "fortunate almost beyond words."
"All of us had that feeling that Hawaii was just the most blessed place on the face of the Earth today," he said.
The tsunami, spawned by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan, killing hundreds as it 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 on the islands and the West Coast before dawn and roadways and beaches were mostly empty as the tsunami struck.
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.
President Barack Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is ready to come to the aid of any U.S. states or territories who need help.
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.
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.
Many islands in the Pacific evacuated, but officials later 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.
In the Canadian pacific coast province of British Columbia, authorities evacuated marinas, beaches and other areas.
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