JIM LEHRER: The quake also sent tsunami waves roaring across the Pacific for thousands of miles in every direction. Alerts were generated around much of the Pacific Rim, from South Asia to Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, the mainland U.S. and South America.
NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports from San Francisco.
SPENCER MICHELS: Civil defense sirens blared across Hawaii, 3,800 miles from Japan, as the warnings came hours before the first waves hit.
MAN: We have water and stuff at home already. So, we just need gas, charging up our phones and everything. Better to be safe than sorry, yes? Just pray for the best, though. Hope everything works out for everyone.
SPENCER MICHELS: Most heeded the appeals to move away from coastal areas, escaping seven-foot waves that swamped beaches. As the day wore on, there was some flooding, but only minor damage and no injuries. It all came just a year after the Chilean earthquake triggered similar alerts.
CAPT. JOANNA NUNAN, U.S. Coast Guard: I think that, because of the last tsunami situation that Hawaii had, that we have some practice. So, I really felt like people knew what to do. Everyone had a good -- a very good response, and I think just because they have had practice and they realize how important it is.
SPENCER MICHELS: Several hours later, the waves, moving 500 miles an hour, struck North America. In another stroke of good fortune, the surge arrived along the Pacific Northwest at low tide.
But there was damage. In Crescent City, near the Oregon border, one man taking photos was reportedly swept into the water and is presumed dead. At least two others were rescued. Boats were crushed in the harbor, and surging water destroyed docks.
In Santa Cruz, people gawked at boats in the marina that had smashed into each other from waves three to four feet that came rushing into the narrow passage leading to the harbor.
Here in the San Francisco area, it was hard to tell that anything was wrong. Some beaches in low-lying areas were evacuated in anticipation of surging water. And the Great Highway along the coast was closed and people told to stay away.
Thousands of people heeded such warnings, from Washington to Oregon to Northern California, leaving escape routes jammed with traffic. Others took it all in stride, as in Southern California, where surfers in Redondo Beach took the opportunity to hit the water.