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Tsunami waves reach West Coast as National Weather Service urges: ‘Move off the beach’

An underwater volcano off Tonga erupted on Jan. 15, triggering a tsunami warning for several South Pacific island nations. (Video: Reuters)

Tsunami waves rolled ashore Saturday along the West Coast of the United States after the powerful eruption of an undersea volcano near the Tonga islands in the Pacific Ocean, closing beaches, flooding marinas and activating emergency plans from Japan to California.

The National Weather Service issued a tsunami advisory for coastal areas of California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, a lower threat level than a warning but still signaling a tsunami capable of generating strong currents and dangerous waves. The agency ruled out “widespread inundation” but nonetheless urged caution.

“If you are located in this coastal area, move off the beach and out of harbors and marinas,” the Weather Service advised people along the West Coast.

The forceful eruption sparked concern across the Pacific, with the first impacts felt in Tonga, a remote South Pacific archipelago, where videos on social media showed waves slamming into homes. Tsunami warnings and advisories were also in place for the Fiji and American Samoa islands, parts of Australia and New Zealand, Japan and as far away as South America, where Chilean authorities warned people in some areas to leave beaches.

In the United States, meteorologists reported registering tsunami waves by midmorning, measuring about 1 to 3 feet and generating minor flooding.

Officials in Berkeley, Calif., evacuated more than 100 residents living on boats in the city’s marina, going from vessel to vessel waking people to get them to higher ground. Authorities and fishermen elsewhere tied down boats while urging people to stay away. Nonetheless, some ventured out.

First responders in Northern California said two people were hospitalized in stable condition after being swept into the water while fishing. In another incident, a surfer was rescued after waves broke his board, the San Francisco Fire Department said.

Tsunami conditions are unusual but not unheard of along the West Coast. In 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering tsunamis and resulting in catastrophic damage and more than 15,000 deaths in the Japanese archipelago. Tsunami waves reached the California and Oregon coastlines, killing at least one person and damaging marinas.

Any eruption-driven waves reaching the West Coast on Saturday were not expected to be as strong, but meteorologists said they could still generate life-threatening conditions.

Brian Garcia, a Weather Service meteorologist based in the San Francisco Bay area, said the community saw waves reach “king-tide-type heights,” referring to extra-high tides usually spurred by astronomical alignments. He said waves similar to a king tide, which happens about twice a year in California, hit more frequently during the advisory.

“We are going to see surges of water pretty much all day today at potentially advisory-level heights,” Garcia said. “This is not something we’re used to seeing.”

At marinas along the coast, boat owners woke up early to prepare their vessels for the rising tide. Jeff Folkema, a marina operator in Garibaldi, Ore., said he got a call at 5:30 a.m. alerting him to the tsunami advisory. Still, he wasn’t overly concerned, noting that the marina had done well the last time the area saw tsunami conditions a decade ago.

“I just make sure everything is free enough to float up with the surge and then go back down with the surge,” he said. “There isn’t a whole lot you can do.”

Federal emergency management authorities said they were closely watching the coasts. Brian Ferguson, a spokesman with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said officials were in touch with the U.S. Coast Guard and acted quickly to get surfers and swimmers out of the water, notify campers on the beach and get boats secured in harbors.

“At this time, this is only a tsunami advisory, as opposed to a tsunami warning, but we are leaning forward and taking nothing for granted to try to keep our communities and critical infrastructure safe,” Ferguson wrote in an email.

Some Alaska residents reported hearing a “sonic boom” around 3:30 a.m. local time, roughly seven hours after the volcano erupted, according to the Weather Service. Brian Brettschneider, an Alaska-based climatologist, estimated on Twitter that a pressure wave traveled 5,820 miles from Tonga to Anchorage at a speed of 830 mph.

In Tonga, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, located about 40 miles north of Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island, spewed ash, steam and gas up to 12 miles into the air Friday, the Tonga Geological Services said. Local media reported ash falling over parts of the capital and that all domestic flights on Saturday were canceled.

There were no immediate reports of significant damage or injuries, but communications there were still spotty. Global Internet monitor NetBlocks shared data indicating that the Internet had collapsed entirely. Tonga accesses its Internet via a cable from Fiji that connects onto the region’s Southern Cross cable.

Meteorologists in the United States expressed concern about the timing of the tsunami waves, noting that given the early hour of the advisory, some of those who live near the coast might have headed for a walk along the beach unaware of the stronger waves.

“It’s definitely not just any morning on the beaches along the Oregon and Washington coastline,” said Colby Neuman, a Weather Service meteorologist based in Portland.

A 1-to-3-foot rise in wave heights could be enough to knock beachgoers off their feet and pull them into the ocean, he said, adding that the cold water in the Pacific Northwest means a risk of hypothermia for anyone in the water. Neuman also said that logs deposited along the Oregon coast could become a hazard if dislodged by a wave.

“There’s a lot more mass and energy behind these waves,” he said. “So that’s always what makes them sort of more dangerous than what one might expect.”

Dana Felton, a Weather Service meteorologist in Seattle, expected the advisory to last a few hours before being lifted sometime Saturday.

“We don’t know how long the tsunami waves are going to last, but it’s very common for the first wave to not be the highest wave,” he said. “Today is not the day to take a walk along the ocean.”

Savannah Peterson saw some of the biggest waves crash down in front of her apartment along the beach promenade in Pacifica, Calif., about 15 miles outside San Francisco. Peterson, 33, awoke around 6 a.m. when she heard waves that were about 6 to 10 feet high pound the walkway that separates the Pacific Ocean from oceanfront properties.

As Peterson and her neighbors were watching the waves — “One of them said, ‘Nothing brings the neighborhood together like a tsunami,’” she said — the water crashed over the sea wall and made it all the way to her front door at around 8 a.m.

“I’m used to hearing the sound of the waves, and I can tell when they hit differently,” said Peterson, who has lived there for four and a half years. “It almost starts to feel like a small earthquake, hitting with such force that it’ll shake the house.”

She was in awe of how quickly the water level fluctuated from high to low after every wave crashed into the promenade, and how the tsunami got up close and personal with her in the backyard of her home.

“Today was the first time the water kissed my front door,” she said. “That was a game-changer for me. I was like ‘Oh, this is actually a tsunami.’”

Claire Parker contributed to this report.