The warnings traveled quickly across the Pacific in the middle of the night: An 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan spawned a deadly tsunami, and it was racing east Friday as fast as a jetliner. Sirens blared in Hawaii. The West Coast pulled back from the shoreline, fearing the worst. People were warned to stay away from the beaches. Fishermen took their boats out to sea and safety. The alerts moved faster than the waves, giving millions of people across the Pacific Rim hours to prepare.
In the end, the damage was mainly to harbors and marinas in California and Oregon. Boats crashed into each other, some vessels were pulled out to sea and docks were ripped out. Rescue crews searched for a man who was swept out to sea while taking pictures.
None of the damage - in the U.S., South America or Canada - was anything like the devastation in Japan.
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."
Within 10 minutes after Japan was shaken by its biggest earthquake in recorded history, the center had issued its warning. The offshore quake pushed water onto land, sometimes miles inland, sweeping away boats, cars, homes and people.
As the tsunami raced across the Pacific at 500 mph, the first sirens began sounding across Hawaii late Thursday night.
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, either.
Early Friday, the tsunami waves reached Hawaii, tossing boats in Honolulu. The water covered beachfront roads and rushed into hotels on the Big Island. Low-lying areas in Maui were flooded as 7-foot waves crashed ashore.
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.
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.
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."
Erik Bergman was back at the shore by 9:30 in the morning. Roughly 100 feet away was a man playing with his dog. Two small children chased seagulls.
"People aren't too nervous," Bergman said.
President Barack Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was ready to come to the aid of any U.S. state or territory that needed help. Coast Guard cutters and aircraft were readied to respond as soon as conditions allowed.
In Crescent City, Calif., just south of the Oregon border, the Coast Guard searched for a man who was swept out to sea. He was taking photos near the mouth of the Klamath River. Two friends with him were able to get back to land.
Sheriff's deputies went door to door at dawn to urge residents to seek higher ground.
By midmorning, water rushing into the harbor had destroyed about 35 boats and ripped 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.
Ted Scott, a retired mill worker who lived in the city when a 1964 tsunami killed 17 people on the West Coast, including 11 in Crescent City, watched the water pour into the harbor.
"This is just devastating. I never thought I'd see this again," he said. "I watched the docks bust apart. It buckled like a graham cracker."
The waves, however, had not made it over a 20-foot break wall protecting the rest of the city. No serious injuries were immediately reported.
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.
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."
Associated Press writers contributing to this report include Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu, Denise Petski and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles, Garance Burke in San Francisco, Kathy McCarthy in Seattle, Nigel Duara in Seaside, Ore., Jeff Barnard in Crescent City, Calif., Rob Gillies in Toronto, Alicia Chang in Pasadena, Calif., Terry Tang, Michelle Price and Carson Walker in Phoenix. Mark Niesse contributed from Ewa Beach, Hawaii. Song reported from Honolulu.
© 2011 The Associated Press.