- Residents evacuated to refugee areas
- 4.6-magnitude quake struck Hawaii at 4 a.m. ET
- Waves expected to hit US West Coast around 11 a.m. ET
- There may be some evacuations needed in low-lying West Coast areas
HONOLULU — Tsunami waves spawned by a massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan hit the Hawaiian island of Kauai on Friday, and began rushing through the Pacific island chain.
Residents in coastal areas of Hawaii were evacuated to refuge areas at community centers and school while tourists were moved to the upper levels of high-rise hotels.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning center said the first waves could reach 6 feet high.
Roadways and beaches were empty as the tsunamis struck the state, which had hours to prepare.
Wave surges were seen at Waikiki beach at around 3:20 a.m. (8:20 a.m. ET),
Waves are predicted to hit the western coast of the United States between 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. ET Friday. People near the beach and in low-lying coastal areas of Point Conception in Santa Barbara County were told to move immediately inland to higher ground.
"It is very possible there may be some evacuations here," California Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jordan Scott said by telephone from Oakland. He added that the far northern California area near the Oregon border was most likely to see big waves.
A 4.6-magnitude earthquake also hit Hawaii at around 11 p.m. Thursday local time (4 a.m. ET Friday), the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.
While the tsunami is likely to go around smaller islands, the size of Hawaii's islands will amplify the waves, which will crash hardest against harbors and inlets.
Tsunami warnings covered an area stretching the entire western coast of the United States and Canada from the Mexican border to Chignik Bay in Alaska. In Alaska, a dozen small communities along the Aleutian Island chain were on alert.
The warning also included Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Central and South America and the rest of the Pacific Ocean.
Waves almost 5 feet high hit Midway, a tiny island in the North Pacific about 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu.
"[The waves are] going to be coming in with high currents, they can pick up boulders from the sea floor ... they can pick up cars, they can pick up fuel tanks, those things become battering rams and so it just amplifies the destruction in a big tsunami," said Chip McCreery, director for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
Victor Sardina, a geophysicist for the tsunami center, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that 12- to 14-foot waves could hit the town of Hilo on the island of Hawaii and the town of Haleiwa on Oahu.
'Don't wait for a siren'
"Everyone in that area knows, when you feel it, move — don't wait for a siren," said John Madden, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The largest affected town is Unalaska, population about 4,000.
Residents in coastal areas across the Pacific from Hawaii to Guam were ordered to evacuate to shelters and higher ground. In Hawaii's tourist district of Waikiki, visitors were being moved to higher floors of their hotels.
Meanwhile, residents waited in long lines as they stocked up on gas, bottled water, canned food and generators.
"We've had a big crowd," a manager of the 24-hour Longs Drugstore in Honolulu, told msnbc.com. He did not give his name because he was not authorized to do so without approval from his district manager.
"We sold a lot of water — that was the main concern," he said. "It was kinda hectic."
Honolulu resident Margaret Carlile told msnbc.com that the alarms woke her up. "All the sirens went off — there's one down by the ocean and one nearer," she said. "The alarms are going off every hour on the hour to alert people."
Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle said on local TV station KHNL that city and county employees were placed on administrative leave Friday and had been asked to stay home.
Evacuation zones would be closed after 2 a.m. local time (7 a.m. ET) and people would not be allowed in after that time, he said. Carlisle added that hospitals would not be used as shelters.
In iconic Waikiki, home to a number of resorts and hotels, guests were being evacuated to the upper floors of their hotels.
Marsha Wienert, regional public relations manager for Starwood Hawaii hotels, told msnbc.com that emergency procedure for hotels in Waikiki required guests on lower floors to evacuate to above the fourth floor. Hotels with fewer stories were moving guests to higher ground.
The atmosphere was "very calm [and] very orderly," she said, speaking from the Sheraton Waikiki, which is in an evacuation zone.
All roads in and out of Waikiki were closed, she added.
Reverberations throughout Pacific
The Pacific Disaster Center, a federal information processing facility, published the evacuation zones for the Hawaiian islands on its website.
"We're preparing for the worst and we're praying for the best," said John Cummings III, spokesman for the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management.
McCreary said the threat will become clearer when the waves hit Wake Island and Midway.
"Tsunami waves, because of their long length, they wrap around our islands very efficiently," he said.
Readings have come in from deep ocean gages deployed since the 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh in Indonesia.
The warning was issued Thursday at 9:31 p.m. local time (2:31 a.m. ET). Sirens were sounded about 30 minutes later in Honolulu alerting people in coastal areas to evacuate. About 70 percent 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.
In the Philippines, officials ordered an evacuation of coastal communities along the country's eastern seaboard in expectation of a tsunami.
Disaster management officials in Albay province southeast of Manila say they ordered residents to move to designated evacuation sites that are at least 15 feet above sea level.
In Guam, authorities advised people to evacuate low areas of the U.S. territory and seek ground higher than 50 feet above sea level and 100 feet inland.
The Northern Mariana Islands, another U.S. territory, was also under the warning, and the Hyatt Regency in Saipan has moved guests to three highest floors of the seven-story hotel.
Hotel spokesman Luis Villagomez said the hotel had received about three tsunami warnings in the last year but no serious damage.
The Associated Press, msnbc.com staff and Reuters contributed to this report.