A tsunami carries boats across waters in Kamaishi city port in this still image taken from video footage. (STR, Reuters / March 11, 2011)
Reporting from Oahu, Hawaii and Los Angeles --Tourists and residents were told to evacuate coastal areas of Hawaii early Friday after officials issued a tsunami warning for much of the Pacific Ocean following the devastating 8.9 earthquake near Japan.
The Hawaii State Civil Defense ordered coastal areas to be evacuated. John M. Cummings III, spokesman for the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management, said authorities consider the warning "very, very serious."
"Anyone in the shoreline areas should get out now," he said. The evacuation area included the tourist hub of Waikiki, where thousands of people are packed into a string of beachfront hotels. Hotel guests staying in concrete or steel-reinforced buildings were being moved to the third floor for safety, Cummings said.
City buses have been converted into evacuation shuttles to help get people to refuge areas at schools and parks, where they can wait out the possible tsunami.
Warning sirens were sounding about once every hour since they began ringing just before 10 p.m. Local time. Tsunami waves could hit the islands just before 3 a.m., or about 5 a.m. Pacific time, said Chip McCreary of the the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center told reporters.
"These are not like surf waves," he said. "These waves effectively wrap around islands, so all coasts will be affected."
Pacific Tsunami Warning Center officials warned that "urgent action should be taken to protect lives and property. Tsunami waves effectively wrap around islands. All shores are at risk no matter which direction they face."
McCreary said the waves would reach the island of Kauai first and would take between half an hour and an hour to cross the state.
Residents in coastal areas were calling and texting each other, sending e-mails and dropping in on their neighbors to discuss possible evacuation plans. At least some were skeptical that any significant waves would hit Hawaii. The last time a tsunami warning was issued in Hawaii was after the earthquake in Chile in February last year.
"It was nothing," said Susanne Ball, a 46-year-old artist who lives just blocks from the beach in the eastern Oahu town of Kailua. "We went to somebody's home up on the hill. ... The tsunami came and went and there was just nothing. ... There wasn't even a ripple."
She went to bed and said she would wake up at 2 a.m. to check the news and decide whether to evacuate.
Authorities urged anyone who isn't in the tsunami evacuation zone to stay off the roads to keep them clear for those who might need to escape.
The massive tsunami generated in the wake of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake off the east coast of Japan has already caused extensive damage.
Early Friday, authorities issued a tsunami warning for Oregon and northern and central California; Southern California was under a lower-level tsunami advisory.
Tsunami activity of more than 2 feet has struck the Pacific island of Saipan, and tsunami waves of more than 1 foot have hit Wake Island.
Tsunamis are a series of long ocean waves, and each wave crest can last five to 15 minutes or more and inundate coastal areas, the warning center said.
"The trough of a tsunami wave may temporarily expose the seafloor but the area will quickly flood again," the warning center said.
Television images have already shown significant tsunami damage in Japan, inundating farmland, structures, and automobiles along the coast. As the tsunami hit land there, muddy water swept cars, roofs and churning debris across fields and flat lands. News footage shot from the air captured vehicles fleeing ahead of massive sheets of water that carried burning structures along on the surface. The tsunami overtook homes and roads, showing little sign of ebbing.