March 11, 2011— -- The Coast Guard has suspended its search for a man reported washed out to sea after he and two friends went to the California coast to photograph the tsunami wave spawned by the Japanese earthquake, officials said.
The missing man, who went missing near the Klamath River near the Oregon border, was the only reported U.S. casualty of the wave that raced across the Pacific at 500 mph threatening to strike with waves as high as 9 feet high.
The Coast Guard began searching for the man after his two friends escaped the wave and called 911 shortly after 10 a.m. PT. Despite a 250-square-mile search with multiple helicopters and a lifeboat that lasted more than seven hours, the man was not found, officials said.
Four other men in Oregon were swept off a beach in Brookings, Ore. Two made it back to shore on their own and two others were rescued by emergency crews, the Coast Guard said.
Earlier, people in Hawaii and the West Coast held their breath as the wave sped towards them, and breathed a sigh of relief as the wave caused relatively little damage.
The surge smashed boats and wreck docks in the California cities of Santa Cruz and Crescent City. The tsunami was strongest in Crescent City, which was smacked with an 8-foot tall wave that destroyed the city's piers and sank boats.
On Hawaii's Big Island, waves surged over roads and into lobbies of beachfront hotels.
Nevertheless, President Obama said in a news conference that Washington was "taking this very seriously," and urged people, "if you are told to evacuate, do as you are told."
The president said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was "fully activated."
In a personal note, the president added, "I grew up in Hawaii. That just makes my concern more acute."
The 8.9 magnitude earthquake that rattled Japan today triggered a tsunami that sped across the Pacific Ocean at a velocity that matched that of a commercial jetliner.
Tsunami warning sirens went off from Hawaii to Alaska and Oregon. Evacuations jammed roads and prompted fistfights at gas stations, and the federal government prepared to deploy emergency relief teams.
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In the end, the tsunami drenches the coastlines, but caused little damage.
Officials did not regret their warnings and calls for evacuations.
"We called this right. This evacuation was necessary," said geophysicist Gerard Fryer in Hawaii. "There's absolutely no question, this was the right thing to do."
The tsunami has claimed hundreds of lives in Japan, and with the devastation of the 2004 tsunami still fresh when 230,000 people died, officials were not taking chances.
The tsunami reached Hawaii around 3:30 a.m. local time. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center says Kauai was the first island hit early by the wave, which quickly swept through the Hawaiian Island chain. There were no immediate reports of serious damage.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey the first wave to hit was not as large as experts anticipated, but bigger ones were expected to follow.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie ordered the evacuation of coastal areas. Through the night, residents waited on lines to buy gas, bottled water, canned food and generators.
At least tens of thousands of people were evacuated and there were reports of fighting at gas stations as people fuel up their cars to move inland in Hawaii.
Tsunami Reaches U.S. Coast But Causes Little Damage
"We have been hearing those reports and we've asked everybody to stop doing that, to get out of the way and that their hindering the evacuation," Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle said.
"It's not just a wave," Carlisle warned. "It's a series of waves and no one knows which one will be the strongest, no one knows which one will do the most of damage and we don't even know how long they will last, they could last for a series of hours."
Brian Shiro of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said the tsunami that was then headed for the West Coast "loses a little bit of power because of friction from the bottom of the ocean, but this tsunami is pretty sufficient."
Shiro said the West Coast could see waves as high as 9 feet.
San Francisco activated its emergency operations response team and closed its coastal highway. All coastal access to San Francisco area beaches were also closed.
Los Angeles was warned that the tsunami would arrive at 8:30 a.m. local time, but that another, bigger wave was expected two hours later when the tide would be rising, a potential threat of serious flooding, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
Warning sirens began blaring in some Oregon coastal communities in the small hours of the morning, and residents were urged to seek higher ground.
Orgeon officials said highways were congested with residents evacuating low lying ares near Florence.
Sam McAlmond, a resident of Gold Beach, Ore., chose not to evacuate, but is prepared to leave his home if it becomes necesary.
"This doesn't happen too often. We liked to see it if and when anything happens," he said of the tsunami. "We have all of our necessary equipment -- fresh water and food. Filled up the tank with gas and there is an escape route."
McAlmond said he had not seen any significant waves from his beach front home.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.