Albert Wood of Seaside, Ore., said he and his wife decided to leave their home late Thursday night after watching news about the Japan quake. He, his wife and dozens of other people stood on a hilly area overlooking the tourist town to wait out the waves.
"Water was being sucked out of the harbor mouth, it was like a river," said tour boat operator Dan Haifley. "The water dropped, and we could see the sandy bottom of the harbor."
Surfers who raced to the beach to catch the waves were undeterred.
"The tides are right, the swell is good, the weather is good, the tsunami is there. We're going out," said William Hill, an off-duty California trooper.
Further north, fishermen moved crab boats to avoid the waves, taking no chances. A tsunami killed 11 people in 1964 in Crescent City, Calif.
Latin American governments ordered islanders and coastal residents to head for higher ground. First affected would be Chile's Easter Island, in the remote South Pacific, about 2,175 miles west of the capital of Santiago, where people planned to evacuate the only town. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency and ordered people on the Galapagos Islands and the coast of the mainland to seek higher ground.
The Honolulu International Airport remained open but seven or eight jets bound for Hawaii turned around, including some originating from Japan, the state Department of Transportation said. All harbors were closed and vessels were ordered to leave the harbor.
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.
A small 4.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Big Island just before 5 a.m. EST, but there were no reports of damages and the quake likely wasn't related to the much larger one in Japan, the USGS said.
The worst big wave to strike the U.S. was a 1946 tsunami caused by a magnitude of 8.1 earthquake near Unimak Islands, Alaska, that killed 165 people, mostly in Hawaii. In 1960, a magnitude 9.5 earthquake in southern Chile caused a tsunami that killed at least 1,716 people, including 61 people in Hilo. It also destroyed most of that city's downtown. On the U.S. mainland, a 1964 tsunami from a 9.2 magnitude earthquake in Prince William Sound, Alaska, struck Washington State, Oregon and California. It killed 128 people, including 11 in Crescent City, Calif.
Photos: Scenes from the earthquake