CRESCENT CITY Tsunami waves severely damaged harbors in California after devastating Japan and sparking evacuations throughout the Pacific.
Large waves 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.
The tsunami surge at Crescent City was recorded at 8.1 feet.
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.
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 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.
Surfers in California who raced to the beach to catch the waves were undeterred by the surges.
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. Coastal officials from Mexico to Chile were hauling boats from the sea, closing ports and schools and preparing to evacuate thousands of people ahead of the tsunami's expected arrival at 5 p.m. EST.
Mexico closed the major Pacific cargo port of Manzanillo and several cargo ships and a cruise ship decided to wait out a possible tsunami at sea rather than risk possible damage in a harbor. 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.
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.