HONOLULU — Tsunami waves hit Hawaii in the early morning hours Friday and were sweeping through the island chain after an earthquake in Japan sparked evacuations throughout the Pacific and as far as the U.S. western coast.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center says Kauai was the first island hit early Friday by the tsunami, and the waves surged in Waikiki. Officials predicted Hawaii would experience waves up to 6 feet, and officials spent hours evacuating ahead of the storms. The waves early Friday weren't that large.
Residents in coastal areas of Hawaii were evacuated to refuge areas at community centers and schools while tourists in Waikiki were moved to higher floors of their high-rise hotels.
Roadways and beaches were empty as the tsunamis struck the state, which had hours to prepare.
The tsunami was generated by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan.
The governor of Hawaii ordered the evacuation of coastal areas and warned residents to take the threat seriously. People waited in long lines stocking up on gas, bottled water, canned food and generators, and officials told residents to stock up on water and fill their cars with gas.
The tsunami slammed the eastern coast of Japan, sweeping away boats, cars, homes and people as widespread fires burned out of control. It's traveling at 500 mph (800 kph) — as fast as a jetliner — and likely won't change speed until it hits a large area of land, said Kanoa Koyanagi, a geophysicist for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
Waves are predicted to hit the western coast of the United States between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.
People near the beach and in low-lying coastal areas of Point Conception in Santa Barbara County were told to move immediately inland to higher ground.
While the tsunami is likely to go around smaller islands, the size of Hawaii's islands will amplify the waves, which will crash hardest against harbors and inlets.
"They're going to be coming in with high currents, they can pick up boulders from the sea floor ... they can pick up cars, they can pick up fuel tanks, those things become battering rams and so it just amplifies the destruction in a big tsunami," said Chip McCreery, director for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
Waves almost 5 feet high hit Midway, a tiny island in the North Pacific about 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu.
"We're preparing for the worst and we're praying for the best," said John Cummings III, spokesman for the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management.
The Honolulu International Airport remained open but seven or eight jets bound for Hawaii have turned around, including some originating from Japan, the state Department of Transportation said.
All harbors are closed and vessels were being ordered to leave the harbor.
The warnings issued by the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center cover an area stretching the entire western coast of the United States and Canada from the Mexican border to Chignik Bay in Alaska.
In Alaska, a dozen small communities along the Aleutian Island chain were on alert. The first waves — about 1.5 feet — hit the western portions of the islands with no reported damage.
In Oregon, county officials in Oregon were assessing whether to sound sirens; waves in Brookings in southern Oregon could also hit 6 feet.
Associated Press Writers contributing to this report include Mark Niesse and Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu, Denise Petski in Los Angeles, Kathy McCarthy in Seattle, Michelle Price and Carson Walker in Phoenix.