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Originally published March 11, 2011 at 7:08 AM | Page modified March 11, 2011 at 2:13 PM

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First Tsunami on Washington coast 1.7 feet at La Push

Vigorous waves similar to any stormy day on the coast were the only sign that a tsunami had arrived in Washington on Friday morning.

Warning/Advisory definitions from the National Weather Service

Tsunami warning: A tsunami with significant widespread inundation is imminent or expected. Warnings indicate that widespread dangerous coastal flooding accompanied by powerful currents is possible and may continue for several hours after the initial wave arrival.

Tsunami advisory: A tsunami capable of producing strong currents or waves dangerous to persons in or very near the water is expected. Significant widespread inundation is not expected for areas under an advisory. Currents may be hazardous to swimmers, boats, and coastal structures and may continue for several hours after the initial wave arrival.

National Weather Service

Vigorous waves similar to any stormy day on the coast were the only sign that a tsunami had arrived in Washington on Friday morning.

The National Weather Service said the first wave of the tsunami to hit the Washington Coast just after 7 a.m. measured 1.7 feet at La Push, about half a foot at Neah Bay and Port Angeles, and 1.3 feet at Westport.

The tsunami advisory remained in effect for the Washington Coast and more waves were expected, said Kirby Cook, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Seattle. More waves were landing in California and that meant Washington and Oregon could expect more as well.

The advisory would remain in effect until the tsunami center in Alaska called it off, Cook said. The waves were triggered by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan.

About 60 people had evacuated to Grays Harbor Fire District No. 8 in Moclips. Volunteer firefighter Cathy Bisiack said a group of mostly elderly residents were enjoying a pancake breakfast and watching the news on TV when the waves started to hit the Washington Coast.

In Alaska, the tsunami caused a wave just over 5 feet at Shemya in the Aleutian Islands 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage.

During the advisory, residents around Moclips, Pacific Beach, Iron Springs and Taholah who live close to the ocean were asked to move to higher ground, the Grays Harbor Emergency Management agency said.

Harper says the Quinault Indians were looking at limited evacuations in the Taholah area. Farther north, members of the Makah and Hoh Indian tribes were coordinating their public safety efforts with Jefferson County.

In southwest Washington's Pacific County, Sheriff Scott Johnson said the county activated its reverse 911 system, phoning residents on the coast and in low-lying areas and asking them to move to higher ground.

In light of the advisory, an orderly evacuation was under way before dawn in Long Beach, Ilwaco and Ocean Park, Johnson said.

"We certainly don't want to cry wolf," he said. "We just have to hope we're doing the right thing based on our information. We don't want to be wrong and have people hurt or killed.

"In the last 25-30 years, this is the second time I've been involved in an evacuation for this reason," the sheriff added.

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Within minutes, a steady stream of cars was pulling to Mark and Vicki Whitman's combination store and gas station on the edge of town. "People are getting gas so they can get the hell out," Mark Whitman said.

About 4 miles east of Long Beach, dozens of cars lined the shoulders of Highway 101on the closest higher ground available.

"I'm really not too worried, but we live close enough to the beach that I figured we might as well go and be safe," said Mary Hersey, a 20-year- resident of the Long Beach peninsula. Hersey said when she heard of the advisory, it took her only a few minutes to gather up her two dogs, a cat, daughter and grandson and head for high ground.

Still, many people remained in Long Beach, noting that the tsunami siren system hadn't sounded.

Joanne Black put some clothes, food and other supplies in her trunk outside her house, but said she didn't expect to leave unless she heard the situation was growing more serious.

Some Long Beach residents noted that early reports from Hawaii indicated the tsunami might not be as large as first feared.

Access roads to beach were closed, but the beach was nearly, but not entirely, deserted.

Matt Winters, editor of the local weekly, the Chinook Observer, watched the wave action from a boardwalk above the beach and said he'd seen nothing unusual. There also was a jogger with dog on beach.

Major roads remained open in the peninsula.

At Ilwaco Middle/High School, the area's designated evacuation site during emergencies, between 400-500 evacuaees spent the night.

"Some of the people were really frightened. You can imagine being awakened in the middle of the night and you hear tsunami and you don't know what's going on," said Marc Simmons, a co-principal at the school.

Television news coverage heightened their concern, he said.

"I think the images of what happened in Japan got people thinking, 'If we got even half of that, how bad it would be.',"

At the school, some of those most concerned were calmed by having a place to go and people to be with, Simmons said

Classes were canceled for the day, but many school employees came to help those who left their homes.

The school provided the evacuees food that would have been served at school Friday.

People became calmer with early reports that waves in Hawaii were not as big as feared.

Whatever the size of the wave that hits the coast, it could be amplified by the tide — low this morning but higher as the day goes on, Harper said. In Oregon, residents living near beaches on the coast evacuated their homes Friday morning, and gift shops and other businesses stayed shuttered as a tsunami surged across the Pacific following a massive earthquake in Japan.

Some evacuees in Seaside drove into a hilly area overlooking town to wait for the predicted big waves, which were expected to hit the Oregon coast between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.

Restaurants, gift shops and other businesses in the tourist town were shuttered, and hotels were evacuated.

Evacuations were reported in parts of several coastal communities.

Streams of eastbound traffic were reported on some roads near the coast as residents sought higher ground, and long lines were reported at some gas stations.

Coastal communities were bracing for waves of up to 6 feet that could cause damage.

Mike Fancher, from Seattle, who is in Cannon Beach, said the downtown was evacuated about 6:20 Friday morning, but things were quiet otherwise.

Schools up and down the coast were closed. Gov. John Kitzhaber issued a statement urging "all Oregonians along the coast to heed tsunami alarms and follow instructions from public safety officials about heading to higher ground."

Alaska Emergency Management says the tsunami from the Japanese earthquake caused a 5.1-foot wave at Shemya, 1.5-foot at Adak, and 1.6-foot at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. Shemya is 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Emergency Management Specialist David Lee at Fort Richardson says there are no reports of damage and no significant damage expected on the coast of Alaska, although that could still depend on the surge in different areas.

The Alaska Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning for the coastal areas of Alaska from Attu to Amchitka Pass in the Aleutians and an advisory from Amchitka Pass along the West Coast to Oregon.

Seattle Times staff reporter Jack Broom on the Washington coast contributed to this report.

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