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Tsunami waves hit Pacific coast

Last Updated 7:02 p.m. ET

Waves from a tsunami triggered by Japan's catastrophic earthquake slapped the U.S. west coast, causing extensive damage to harbors and piers in California.

Waves surging along the coast reached as high as 7 feet.

In Santa Cruz, a local emergency was declared when a series of waves pulled boats loose from their moorings and sent them crashing into piers and bridges. Half-sunken pleasure boats were seen bobbing in Santa Cruz harbor.

Surge after surge swept into the harbor, washing boats back and forth as owners looked on helplessly, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

The phenomenon of receding water before secondary surges come ashore - dragging dislodged boats back and forth through the harbor, like a fast-moving river - was watched by onlookers and fearful boat owners. But the surging tide caused an estimated $2 million in damage in the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor, according to a county spokesman.

In Crescent City, Calif., where a tsunami in 1964 killed 11 people, fishermen fired up their crab boats and left the harbor to ride out an expected swell. Their caution paid off: Officials told the Times-Standard that the harbor has been destroyed.

Crescent City Councilman Rich Enea told the paper that 35 boats had been crushed, and Del Norte County Sheriff Commander Bill Steven said most of the docks are gone.

Tsunami warnings issued by the 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.

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Many of the waves hitting the west coast are only between 3 to 6 feet, but experts say they are moving fast - making them powerful and dangerous, reports CBS News correspondent Sandra Hughes. And the ocean surge may last for as long as ten hours.

Of surfers who are trying to take advantage of the bigger waves, USGS seismologist Lucy Jones told CBS News, "There's only so much you can control people's stupidity, but it's stupid to go to the beach during a tsunami warning."

The tsunami struck the Hawaiian Islands Friday morning, with waves as high as six feet recorded in Maui.

CBS Station KPIX correspondent James Reid reports this morning thousands of people were parked at higher ground along Highway 92 in San Mateo County, and are waiting out the warning. There are also hundreds of onlookers along the cliffs with cameras and binoculars.

KPIX correspondent Cristin Ayers reports the phenomenon of waters receding in Pacifica. Though beaches had been cleared, some dog walkers have been spotted.

KPIX correspondent Cassandra Treasure-Jones said surfers have gone into the water at Santa Cruz, despite warnings from lifeguards to come in.

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In Alaska, the tsunami caused a wave just over 5 feet at Shemya in the Aleutian Islands 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage.

The National Weather Service said a 1.6-foot wave hit the Washington Coast at La Push, and 1.5-foot waves were measured at Neah Bay and Port Angeles.

In Oregon, sirens blasted in some coastal communities and at least one hotel was evacuated in the northern part of the state. Restaurants, gift shops and other beachfront business stayed shuttered, and schools up and down the coast were closed.

Geophysicist Gerard Fryer at the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said high water reached Port Orford, Ore., around 7:30 a.m. PST Friday.

In Southern California some cities closed beaches and piers. An elementary school on the Newport Beach peninsula was closed for the day.

South of  Los Angeles in Orange County a helicopter pilot watched as the Tsunami surge made a canal flow backwards, reports Blackstone.

Los Angeles Port Police Sgt. Ryan Howley said harbor operations are normal but loading and unloading of fuel has been halted.

Evacuations were ordered in parts of Washington, Oregon and California.

"This is not a drill," reads a flier handed out by sheriff's deputies and firefighters in Washington's Grays Harbor County who were knocking on doors in low-lying areas of the small coastal community of Moclips, urging residents to evacuate in advance of an expected tsunami wave.

It was the second time in a little over a year that Hawaii and the U.S. West coast faced the threat of a massive tsunami. A magnitude-8.8 earthquake in Chile spawned warnings on Feb. 27, 2010, but the waves were much smaller than predicted and almost no damage was reported.

Scientists acknowledged they overstated the threat but defended their actions, saying they took the proper steps and learned the lessons of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed thousands of people who didn't get enough warning.

In the Canadian pacific coast province of British Columbia, authorities evacuated marinas, beaches and other areas.

In Alaska, a dozen small communities along the Aleutian Island chain were on alert, but there were no reports of damage from a wave just over 5 feet.

(Left: Tsunami wave amplitude map predicting the wave amplitude of tsunami generated by the Japan earthquake.)

Officials in two coastal Washington counties used an automated phone alert system, phoning residents on the coast and in low-lying areas and asking them to move to higher ground.

"We certainly don't want to cry 'wolf,'" said Sheriff Scott Johnson of Washington's Pacific County. "We just have to hope we're doing the right thing based on our information. We don't want to be wrong and have people hurt or killed."

Latin American governments ordered islanders and coastal residents to head for higher ground. First affected would be Chile's Easter Island, in the remote South Pacific, about 2,175 miles east of the capital of Santiago, where people planned to evacuate the only town. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency and ordered people on the Galapagos Islands and the coast of the mainland to seek higher ground.

The worst big wave to strike the U.S. was a 1946 tsunami caused by a magnitude of 8.1 earthquake near Unimak Islands, Alaska, that killed 165 people, mostly in Hawaii. In 1960, a magnitude 9.5 earthquake in southern Chile caused a tsunami that killed at least 1,716 people, including 61 people in Hilo. It also destroyed most of that city's downtown. On the U.S. mainland, a 1964 tsunami from a 9.2 magnitude earthquake in Prince William Sound, Alaska, struck Washington State, Oregon and California. It killed 128 people, including 11 in Crescent City, California.

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