CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — The tsunami triggered by the massive earthquake in Japan rushed onto California's coast Friday morning, causing powerful surges that destroyed boat docks, sent beach-area residents throughout the state evacuating to higher ground and swept at least one person out to sea.
The Coast Guard dispatched helicopters in search of the missing 25-year-old man, who officials said had been taking photos of the tsunami with his family at the mouth of the Klamath River near the Oregon border when a wave pulled him out around 10 a.m. Family members who tried to rescue him made it back to shore, but the man remained missing.
"The waters here are very cold and very rough seas, so if you're not in a survival suit or a dry suit, then your chances of survival are very slim," said Coast Guard Lt. Todd Vorenkamp.
The tide began rising shortly after 7:30 a.m. in Crescent City, about 15 miles to the north, where the tsunami had been expected to hit the hardest in California. Officials had predicted that waves could reach as high as 7 feet there.
Local officials activated tsunami warning sirens in Del Norte and Humboldt counties before dawn, and sheriff's deputies went door to door in Crescent City to urge residents in low-lying areas to seek higher ground.
By midmorning, water rushing into the harbor had destroyed or damaged about 35 boats and ripped chunks off the wooden docks, as marina workers and fishermen scrambled to secure property in between surges. When the water returned, someone would yell "Here comes another one!" to clear the area.
"The last surge filled the entire harbor up to the brim and the next one is expected to spill into the parking lot," said Bill Steven, a commander with the Del Norte County Sheriff's Office. "The damage from this is probably going to go into the millions, easily."
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, watched the water pour into the harbor.
"This is just devastating. I never thought I'd see this again," Scott said. "I watched the docks bust apart. It buckled like a graham cracker."
The waves, however, had not made it over a 20-foot break wall protecting the rest of the city, and no serious injuries or building damage was immediately reported.
The tsunami also caused significant boat damage on California's central coast in Santa Cruz, where dozens of loose fishing boats crashed into one another and chunks of wooden docks also broke off. The water rushed out as quickly as it poured in, leaving the boats tipped over in mud.
"I'm worried about the damage, not just to the boat but to the whole harbor infrastructure," said Dave Emberson, an engineer and local harbor official in Santa Cruz.
Lisa Ekers, director of the Santa Cruz Port District, said preliminary estimates there put damage costs around $14 million, with surges continuing through the afternoon. Of the 800 fishing and pleasure boats normally docked in the harbor, 30 to 40 have been damaged or destroyed, she said.
Further south, rough waters also knocked some boats out of their moorings and damaged the dock in San Luis Obispo County's Morro Bay.
The tsunami warning prompted voluntary evacuation orders in low-lying coastal areas throughout the state. Local officials also closed schools and coastal roads as a precaution.
California's Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant declared an "unusual event," the lowest of four levels of emergency classification as a precaution due to the tsunami threat, but federal regulators said all nuclear plants were operating normally and were being monitored by inspectors.
The warnings didn't stop surfers from taking advantage of the Santa Cruz waves ahead of the tsunami. In Los Angeles, Coast Guard crews working to secure the Venice Pier area also had to order a handful of surfers out of the water.
Darren Lee, a photographer who surfs daily in Santa Cruz, carried his board down the narrow staircase at Cypress Point about 10 minutes before the tsunami was due and paddled out to his regular spot.
Immediately he could tell something was different.
"It was a low tide but it felt like a medium tide. It was real bouncy. There was a lot of current," Lee said.
After surfing for about a half-hour, he decided to come back in. Tsunamis, it seems, aren't conducive to good surf.
"It was really inconsistent," he said, "and I was like, OK, it's like this because there's a tsunami. Now I've been there."
Associated Press writers Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles and Garance Burke in San Francisco contributed to this report.