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The tsunami warnings moved faster than the waves, giving millions of people across the Pacific hours to flee to higher ground. Now they are left to clean up what the waves had wrought: Destroyed docks and damaged boats.
A deadly tsunami generated by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan raced across the Pacific on Friday and into marinas and harbors in Hawaii and on the West Coast, sending boats crashing into one another, carrying some out to sea and demolishing docks.
The damage - the most severe in two seaside towns along the Oregon-California border - was estimated to be in the millions.
"This is just devastating. I never thought I'd see this again," said Ted Scott, a retired mill worker who lived in Crescent City, Calif., when a 1964 tsunami killed 11 people, 17 total along the West Coast.
Still, there was relief that the destruction in the U.S. was nothing like that in Japan. The offshore quake pushed water onto land, sometimes miles inland, sweeping away boats, cars, homes and people. Hundreds are dead.
"With everything that could have happened and did happen in Japan, we're just thankful that nothing else happened," said Sabrina Skiles, whose beachfront house in Maui was left unscathed.
The warnings - the second major one for the region in a year - and the response showed how far the earthquake-prone Pacific Rim had come since a deadly tsunami caught much of Asia by surprise in 2004.
"That was a different era," said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. "We got the warning out very quickly. It would not have been possible to do it that fast in 2004."
Advisories alerting people on the western U.S. coast of higher than normal tides and strong currents continued for many hours after the waves hit.
Within 10 minutes after Japan was shaken by its biggest earthquake in recorded history, the center had issued its warning. As a tsunami raced east at 500 mph - as fast as a jetliner - the first sirens began sounding across Hawaii late Thursday.
Police went through the tourist mecca of Waikiki, warning of an approaching tsunami. Hotels moved tourists from lower floors to upper levels. Some tourists ended up spending the night in their cars.
Across the islands, people stocked up on bottled water, canned foods and toilet paper. Authorities opened buildings to people fleeing low-lying areas. Fishermen took their boats out to sea, away from harbors and marinas where the waves would be most intense.
Residents did the same last February, when an 8.8-magnitude quake in Chile prompted tsunami warnings. The waves did little damage then.
Early Friday, the tsunami waves reached Hawaii, tossing boats in Honolulu. The water covered beachfront roads and rushed into hotels on the Big Island. The waves carried a house out to sea. Seven-foot waves flooded low-lying areas in Maui.
Many other Pacific islands also evacuated their shorelines for a time. In Guam, the waves broke two U.S. Navy submarines from their moorings, but tug boats brought them back to their pier.
In Oregon, the first swells to hit the U.S. mainland were barely noticeable.
Sirens pierced the air in Seaside, a popular tourist town near the Washington state line. Restaurants, gift shops and other beachfront businesses stayed shuttered. Some residents moved to the hills nearby, gathering behind a house.
Residents along coastlines from Washing to California fled to higher ground at the approach of the waves, waiting until the all-clear to return.
Albert Wood said he and his wife decided to leave their home late Thursday night after watching news about the Japan quake - the fifth-largest earthquake since 1900.
Wood was expecting the waves to get bigger and more intense than what he saw. Still, he shook his head as the cars lining the hills began to drive west, into the lowlands adjacent to the shore.
"Just if you ask me, they're being too bold," Wood said. "It's still early. They're just not being cautious."
Outside Brookings, Ore., just north of the California border, four people went to a beach to watch the waves and were swept into the sea. Two got out on their own, and the others were rescued, authorities said.
Brookings harbor saw the worst reported damage in the state with half the facility destroyed and up to 10 boats sunk, Curry County Sheriff John Bishop said.
"The port is in total disarray," he said
In Crescent City, Calif., miles to the south, Coast Guard spent seven hours of fruitless searching for a man who was swept out to sea, before calling off the effort. He had been taking photos near the mouth of the Klamath River. Two people with him jumped in to rescue him, and were able to get back to land, authorities said.
An 8-foot wave rushed into the harbor, destroying about 35 boats and ripping chunks off the wooden docks, as marina workers and fishermen scrambled between surges to secure property. Officials estimated millions of dollars in damage.
When the water returned, someone would yell "Here comes another one!" to clear the area.
Scott, the retired mill worker, watched the water pour into the harbor.
"I watched the docks bust apart. It buckled like a graham cracker," he said.
The waves had not made it over a 20-foot break wall protecting the rest of the city. No serious injuries
A veteran Coast Guard pilot who flew a search and rescue mission over the roiling ocean for six hours said he had never seen anything like it.
"Even from the air, you could actually smell the mud from the ocean floor. As it flowed, you saw the blackness of the water because it was all mixing together," said Lt. Cmdr. Brent Bergan.
On the central coast in Santa Cruz, loose fishing boats crashed into one another and docks broke away from the shore. The water rushed out as quickly as it poured in, leaving the boats tipped over in mud. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that 30-40 boats were damaged or destroyed.
Some surfers ignored evacuation warnings and took advantage of the waves ahead of the tsunami.
"The tides are right, the swell is good, the weather is good, the tsunami is there," said William Hill, an off-duty California trooper. "We're going out."
Scientists warned that the first tsunami waves are not always the strongest. The threat can last for several hours and people should watch out for strong currents.
U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Ken Hudnut said residents along the coast should heed any calls for evacuation.
"Do the right thing," Hudnut said. "Be safe."
This program aired on March 12, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.
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