California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in several counties Friday after tsunami waves caused by the Japan earthquake inundated swaths of the U.S. coast, causing millions of dollars in damage and sweeping a number of people out to sea.

Four people were rescued from the water in Oregon, but one man who was taking photos in northern California was still missing Friday afternoon. Coast Guard helicopters searched for him near the mouth of the Klamath River in Del Norte County, Calif., after his two friends made it back to shore.

About 40 kilometres north, four people were swept off a beach north of Brookings, Ore. Two got out of the water on their own and the others were rescued by law enforcement and fire officials.

A man was found dead aboard a commercial vessel in Brookings, but sheriff's officials said it appeared to be from natural causes.

The large waves shook loose boats that weren't moved in time and tore apart wooden docks in at least two California harbours.

Brown's emergency proclamation said the water surge was causing "extreme peril" to people and property in the counties of Del Norte, Humbolt, San Mateo and Santa Cruz.

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Two men watch the waves at San Francisco's Ocean Beach on Friday during tsunami warnings that came after a 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck Japan. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

"This is just devastating. I never thought I'd see this again," said Ted Scott, a retired mill worker who lived in Crescent City when a 1964 tsunami killed 17 people on the West Coast, including 11 in his town. "I watched the docks bust apart. It buckled like a graham cracker."

The waves didn't make it over a six-metre breakwall protecting the rest of the city, and no home damage was immediately reported.

Damage estimates in Crescent City were in the millions, and more boats and docks were hit in Santa Cruz on California's central coast. Surges are expected throughout the afternoon.

President Barack Obama said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is ready to aid any U.S. states or territories that need help. Coast Guard cutter and aircraft crews were positioning themselves to be ready to conduct response and survey missions as soon as conditions allow.

Low-lying areas in Hawaii flooded

In Hawaii, water rushed up on roadways and into hotel lobbies on the Big Island and low-lying areas in Maui were flooded as two-metre waves crashed ashore. Smaller waves hit the U.S. West Coast and beaches were closed as fishermen fired up their boats and left harbours to ride out the swell.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie said the islands were "fortunate almost beyond words."

"All of us had that feeling that Hawaii was just the most blessed place on the face of the Earth today," he said.

The tsunami, spawned by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan, slammed the eastern coast of Japan, sweeping away boats, cars, homes and people as widespread fires burned out of control. It raced across the Pacific at 500 mph — as fast as a jetliner — before hitting Hawaii and the West Coast.

Sirens sounded for hours before dawn and roadways and beaches were mostly empty as the tsunami struck.

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Rangers of Galapagos National Park evacuate a giant tortoise from an area near the shore after a tsunami warning was issued following a 8.9 earthquake in Japan on Friday. (Parque Nacional Galapagos/Reuters)

In California, dozens of boats were damaged as surging water knocked them from their docks, both in Crescent City and on California's central coast in Santa Cruz, where loose fishing boats crashed into one another and chunks of wooden docks broke off.

It is 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 did little damage.

Scientists then 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.

This time around, the warning went out within 10 minutes of the earthquake in Japan, said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu.

"We called this right. This evacuation was necessary," Fryer said. "There's absolutely no question, this was the right thing to do," he said.

The warnings issued by the tsunami centre covered an area stretching along the entire western coast of the United States and Canada from the Mexican border to Chignik Bay in Alaska.

Pacific islands evacuated

Many islands in the Pacific were evacuated, but officials later told residents to go home because the waves weren't as bad as expected.

Latin Americans rushed to haul boats from the sea, close ports and schools and evacuated several hundred thousand people.

Officials reported only slightly higher waters washing ashore in Mexico's Baja California, the coasts of Honduras and Colombia, Ecuador's Galapagos Islands and Chile's Easter Island.

Heavy swells rolled through the port and marinas of the Baja California resort of Cabo San Lucas, rocking boats at anchor, but they did not top seawalls or bring any reports of damage.

Mexican officials closed the major cargo port of Manzanillo and officials said some cargo ships and a cruise liner had decided to delay entering ports to avoid possible problems from any rough water. Classes were suspended at some low-lying schools in the resort city of Acapulco and officials urged people to stay away from beaches.

Officials in the Central American nation of Honduras said waves along its coast were little changed from the normal 2.5 metres and they lifted the country's tsunami alert in the evening.

On Chile's Easter Island, in the remote South Pacific about 3,500 kilometres west of the capital of Santiago, residents and tourists moved to high ground. Many took shelter at the island's airport, about 45 metres above sea level, Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter said. The island's electricity was partly shut down as a precaution.

But an offshore monitor registered only minimal effects from the tsunami Friday evening, and islanders watching the sea from higher ground could see nothing unusual, former governor Sergio Rapu said in a telephone interview from the island, where the only population centre, Hanga Roa, directly faces Japan. Also exposed were several of the stunning moai head sculptures carved from volcanic rock by the islanders' Rapa Nui ancestors.

The tsunami hit Easter Island at low tide, and the slight impact was welcome news for the Chilean mainland, which also expected tsunami swells at near-low tides.

Flights turned around

The Honolulu International Airport remained open but seven or eight jets bound for Hawaii turned around, including some originating from Japan, the state Department of Transportation said. All harbours were closed and vessels were ordered to leave the harbor.

About 70 per cent of Hawaii's 1.4 million population resides in Honolulu, and as many as 100,000 tourists are in the city on any given day.

A small 4.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Big Island just before 5 a.m. ET, but there were no reports of damages and the quake likely wasn't related to the much larger one in Japan, the USGS said.

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, Calif.

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A computer generated image provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows the travel times of the tsunami that were expected on March 11. (Reuters)