In Newport, waves of concern but few local worries

NEWPORT BEACH — After a day of suspense and anticipation, Newport-Mesa residents were left with calm waters and heavy hearts for those in Japan hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami.

People flocked to bluffs and other vantage points to see the seas change, but for the most part they could see no perceptible difference from any other sunny March day.

Their schedules may have been affected, though. Authorities called residents at 4 a.m. to warn them of a coming tidal wave. Due to the tsunami advisory, the school district also closed Newport Elementary School on the Balboa Peninsula, and kept people off the beaches and out of the water until 1 p.m.

No damage was reported.

The National Weather Service issued the advisory for Southern California after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake rocked Japan the night before. Newport residents were awakened by an emergency warning from the city, saying strong currents or dangerous waves are expected, and that people should avoid the water. But significant, widespread inundation was never a threat.

"Looks like we lucked out," City Manager Dave Kiff said. "You usually want to err on the side of being a little bit more cautious."

By afternoon, Newport emergency responders were still on alert, and Kiff said they may keep their emergency operations center open into the evening.

U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and vessel crews reported sea level rises along the California coast, as well as uncommon swells and currents.

In Newport, at least one resident reported a 1-foot repetitive tide change near Linda Isle, Kiff said.

Officials decided not to sound the city's new coastal emergency sirens because of the relatively low threat to life and property. Also, the quake happened the night before, and people would probably be aware enough of the danger by morning, Kiff said.

Many crowded Lookout Point in Corona del Mar, keeping an eye open for any sign of a tsunami. None came.

"As soon as the animals leave, we'll follow," said Michelle Hobson, 25.

Many dogs yapped and barked, but none appeared to exhibit extraordinary signs of pending natural disaster.

Some children played in the coastal brush, happy school was cancelled. Newport Elementary, the beachfront school on the Balboa Peninsula, was closed for the day "as a precaution in anticipation of the possibility of flooding in the area," according to an emergency warning from the district.

But by about 9 a.m., many people grew tired of waiting at Lookout Point, or had somewhere to go, and left.

The bluff overlooking the harbor entrance was most crowded about 8:45 a.m., when the tsunami was forecast to hit. About 75 people looked toward the water.

Two Harbor Patrol boats idled near the end of the jetties as empty charter fishing boats headed out to sea. Coast Guard helicopter circled overhead.

Japanese Americans react in CM

Further inland, at the Mitsuwa Marketplace on Bristol Street, Japanese Americans and visitors from Japan watched in shock as scenes of disaster flashed on television.

"We knew some day it was going to happen," said Emi Murakami, 30, who grew up in the Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan, "but I can't believe I'm hearing those small-town names on the world news right now."

Murakami, who now lives in Aliso Viejo, said her mother lives about 100 miles from the quake's epicenter.

"My mom is the person who I really care about, and she's fine, so I'm relieved," she said.

Other shoppers worried about friends and relatives. One middle-aged woman visiting from Tokyo shivered and padded her eyes with tissues.

"I can't believe it," she said.

Others had tried to reach their relatives by phone or e-mail. Depending on how close they were to the epicenter, some in Japan had lost landline phone service or electricity, they said.

Beaches cleared

Things were relatively calm near the Santa Ana River mouth, when surfers and onlookers started arriving about 6:30 a.m. to see what was happening.

"It'll be interesting to see that water change," said Chris Thew, 37, from Newport Beach.

He usually surfs at Huntington State Beach, but lifeguards there had already closed the beaches, so he headed south to Orange Street.

"It'd be pretty neat to sneak out and get some waves," Thew said.

But lifeguards were clearing people from the beaches and the water about 7 a.m. They handed out pamphlets titled, "How to Survive a Tsunami." A handful of surfers still lingered in the water, as lifeguards warned that they would soon issue citations.

While authorities stopped short of evacuating homes, they asked people to stay off the boardwalk, said Lifeguard Capt. Brian O'Rourqe.

Some beachfront residents in West Newport were conflicted about what to do early in the morning.

"We're not in a good place," said Robert Beaudoux, 61, who lives on Seashore Drive and was looking pensively out at the ocean from his patio. "You never know."

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