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Man swept to death by tsunami wave in Calif.

Tsunami waves spawned by a devastating earthquake in Japan battered Hawaii and the U.S. western coast Friday, flooding businesses, smashing dozens of boats at harbors and sweeping at least five people out to sea.
Image: Driven by the force of a tsunami surge, a loose boat slams into another in the boat basin at Crescent City, Calif.
Driven by the force of a tsunami surge, a loose boat slams into another in the boat basin at Crescent City, Calif., on Friday.JEFF BARNARD / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Key details

  • Man presumed dead after being swept away
  • Boats sink at harbors in Calif., Ore.

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — Tsunami waves spawned by a devastating earthquake in Japan battered Hawaii and the U.S. western coast Friday, flooding businesses, smashing dozens of boats at harbors and sweeping a man to his death.

Sirens sounded for hours before dawn along the West Coast and roadways and beaches were mostly empty as the tsunami struck. By midmorning, waves were crashing against the 30-foot bluffs in Crescent City, Calif.

A 25-year-old man was swept into the Pacific Ocean near the Klamath River in Del Norte County in Northern California. The man and two friends reportedly traveled to the shoreline to take photos of the incoming tsunami waves, Lt. Todd Vorenkamp said. His friends made it back to shore safely.

The missing man was presumed dead and his body has not been located, said Joey Young, spokesman for the Del Norte County emergency operations center in Crescent City.

Surging water knocked dozens of boats from their docks, both in Crescent City and on California's central coast in Santa Cruz, where loose fishing vessels crashed into one another and chunks of wooden docks broke off.

"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."

Young said about 30 boats were damaged at the harbor in Crescent City.

The waves didn't make it over a 20-foot break wall protecting the rest of the city, and no home damage was immediately reported.

In southern Oregon, the harbor at Brookings, near the California border, was extensively damaged. Several vessels were sunk, half a dozen others were swept to sea and much of the commercial part of the basin was destroyed, Curry County Sheriff John Bishop said. Damages will run in the millions of dollars, he said.

One man with a history of heart problems was found dead aboard a commercial vessel in Brookings but it was unclear if the death was related to the tsunami.

Four people at a beach north of Brookings were swept into the sea. Two were able to get out of the water on their own, and two were rescued by law enforcement and fire officials, the sheriff's office said.

Officials in two coastal Washington state 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."

Earlier in Hawaii, 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.

Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi's office said that "damaging waves" hit Kailua-Kona around 5:30 a.m., roughly two hours after the first surge was expected, . The waves caused relatively minor but widespread damage in the area, the paper said.

Businesses on Maui also reported flood damage and many roads were closed. Mayor Alan Arakawa said the island's 14 evacuation centers were filled, with as many as 500 people in some facilities, the Star-Advertiser 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 watch for strong currents and heed calls for evacuations. Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie said the islands were "fortunate almost beyond words."

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.

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.

Police went through the tourist mecca of Waikiki, warning of the 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.

As the sun rose, people breathed a sigh of relief.

"With everything that could have happened and did happen in Japan, we're just thankful that nothing else happened," said Sabrina Skiles, who along with her husband spent a sleepless night at his office in Maui. Their beachfront house was unscathed.

Kenoi, the Big Island's mayor, told KHNL-TV a home may have washed into the ocean but he was "confident" of no reports of loss of life. "There is damage but considering what could have happened we are thankful," he said.

About 70 percent of Hawaii's 1.4 million population resides in Honolulu, and as many as 100,000 tourists are in the city on any given day.

Honolulu resident Margaret Carlile told that the alarms woke her up. "All the sirens went off — there's one down by the ocean and one nearer," she said. "The alarms are going off every hour on the hour to alert people."

Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle said on KHNL that city and county employees were placed on administrative leave Friday and had been asked to stay home.

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 were 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.

In Latin America, a wave of almost 2 feet hit the remote Easter Island territory. Flood-prone areas along the mainland coast had been evacuated and there were no immediate reports of damage. A magnitude 8.8 quake and ensuing tsunamis a year ago hammered towns, roads and industries and killed more than 500 people in central Chile.

In Ecuador, most of the residents of Galapagos Islands — and many of the islands' world-famous animals — were evacuated to higher ground

Mexico's state-run oil company Pemex evacuated 300 workers from its only oil port on the Pacific coast. Authorities closed ports along Mexico's western coast as a precautionary measure, although the first waves to hit land were smaller than expected.

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.