HONOLULU (AP) - A tsunami spawned by a massive earthquake in Japan raced acrossthe Pacific Ocean early Friday, pushing tourists to the upperlevels of high-rise hotels in Hawaii and threatening to swamplow-lying areas of the U.S. western coast.
Sirens woke residents in the middle of the night in Hawaii,where the governor ordered the evacuation of coastal areas andwarned residents to take the threat seriously. People waited inlong lines stocking up on gas, bottled water, canned food andgenerators, and officials told residents to stock up on water andfill their cars with gas.
The first waves to hit Hawaii could reach 6 feet high and wereexpected to hit about 3 a.m. local time (9 a.m. EST.)
The tsunami slammed the eastern coast of Japan, sweeping awayboats, cars, homes and people as widespread fires burned out ofcontrol. It's traveling at 500 mph - as fast as a jetliner - andlikely won't change speed until it hits a large area of land, saidKanoah Koyanagi, a geophysicist for the Pacific Tsunami WarningCenter.
Waves are predicted to hit the western coast of the UnitedStates between 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. EST Friday. People near thebeach and in low-lying coastal areas of Point Conception in SantaBarbara County were told to move immediately inland to higherground.
While the tsunami is likely to go around smaller islands, thesize of Hawaii's islands will amplify the waves, which will crashhardest against harbors and inlets.
"They're going to be coming in with high currents, they can pickup boulders from the sea floor ... they can pick up cars, they canpick up fuel tanks, those things become battering rams and so itjust amplifies the destruction in a big tsunami," said ChipMcCreery, director for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
Waves almost 5 feet high hit Midway, a tiny island in the NorthPacific 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 ofEmergency Management.
The Honolulu International Airport remained open but seven oreight jets bound for Hawaii have turned around, including someoriginating from Japan, the state Department of Transportationsaid.
All harbors are closed and vessels were being ordered to leavethe harbor.
The warnings issued by the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami WarningCenter cover an area stretching the entire western coast of theUnited States and Canada from the Mexican border to Chignik Bay inAlaska.
In Alaska, a dozen small communities along the Aleutian Islandchain were on alert. In Oregon, county officials in Oregon wereassessing whether to sound sirens; waves in Brookings in southernOregon could also hit 6 feet.
The tsunami was expected to hit the Northern Mariana Islands, aU.S. territory at 4 a.m. EST, but no big waves came. Waves about2.6 feet high hit the beach in Saipan, and sirens still sounded inthe empty streets.
Maria Mettao, who works at the front desk of the Hyatt RegencySaipan in the Northern Marianas, said hotel staff has been giventhe all-clear. Mettao said the hotel has allowed guests to leavefrom the higher floors where they had been evacuated.
In the Philippines, officials ordered an evacuation of coastalcommunities along the country's eastern seaboard in expectation ofa tsunami following the 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan.
Disaster management officials in Albay province southeast ofManila say they ordered residents to move to designated evacuationsites that are at least 15 feet above sea level.
In Guam, authorities advised people to evacuate low areas of theU.S. territory and seek ground higher than 50 feet above sea leveland 100 feet inland.
Australia was not in danger because it was protected by islandnations to the north, including Papua New Guinea and the SolomonIslands, that would largely absorb any wave activity, said ChrisRyan, a forecaster at the National Meteorological and OceanographicCentre, the Australian government agency that monitors thethreat.
The warning was issued Thursday at 9:31 HST p.m. Sirens weresounded about 30 minutes later in Honolulu alerting people incoastal areas to evacuate. About 70 percent of Hawaii's 1.4 millionpopulation resides in Honolulu, and as many as 100,000 tourists arein the city on any given day.
Honolulu's Department of Emergency Management has created refugeareas at community centers and schools, and authorities on Kauaiisland have opened 11 schools to serve as shelters for those whohave left tsunami inundation zones.
Streets cleared out across Hawaii with usually bustling Waikikimostly free of any foot traffic, with police ordering every oneinto the hotels. At the hotels, visitors were evacuated to thethird floor and higher.
"The situation we're confronting right now is unpredictable. Wedo
not know how many waves are going to be coming," said HonoluluMayor Peter Carlisle. "We do not know which wave, if any wave,causes the most damage and how long the series of waves can last.As a result of that, it is our responsibility to do those thingswhich are absolutely essential to ensure that human life issaved."
A small 4.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Big Island justbefore 2 a.m., but there were no reports of damages and the quakesweren't likely related, a geophysicist with the United StatesGeological Survey said.
U.S. Coast Guard rescue crews were making preparationsthroughout the Hawaiian Islands to provide post-tsunami support,with cutter and aircraft crews positioning themselves to conductresponse and survey missions.
Dennis Fujimoto said the mood is calm but concerned on theisland of Kauai while people readying for the tsunami.
There's long lines at gas stations, and at the Wal-Mart, one ofthe few places that was open to midnight, people were stocking upon supplies.
"You got people walking out of there with wagonloads of water,"he said.
The worst big wave to strike the U.S. was a 1946 tsunami causedby a magnitude of 8.1 earthquake near Unimak Islands, Alaska, thatkilled 165 people, mostly in Hawaii. In 1960, a magnitude 9.5earthquake in southern Chile caused a tsunami that killed at least1,716 people, including 61 people in Hilo. It also destroyed mostof that city's downtown. On the U.S. mainland, a 1964 tsunami froma 9.2 magnitude earthquake in Prince William Sound, Alaska, struckWashington State, Oregon and California. It killed 128 people,including 11 in Crescent City, Calif.
Associated Press Writers contributing to this report includeMark Niesse and Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu, Denise Petski in LosAngeles, Kathy McCarthy in Seattle, Michelle Price and CarsonWalker in Phoenix.