(03-11) 08:34 PST SAN FRANCISCO -- The horrific tsunami that washed away buildings in Japan is starting to hit Northern California, with 2- to 5-foot waves predicted to hit local beaches, according to the National Weather Service.
Emergency officials are warning people to stay away from low-lying areas, as the highest waves may yet come. So far, it seems that the swells are only a few feet higher this morning, thanks in part to low tide.
"Stay off the beach," National Weather Service forecaster Diana Henderson said this morning. "It's not just one wave, it's a series that could last up to 12 hours after the initial arrival. So even after 8:30 a.m., please still don't go to the beach. It will be a series of inundations."
Kelly Huston, spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services, agreed, saying, "It's not like it's one surge of water and it's over. People shouldn't say, 'Oh, it's 9:30, so everything's great.' There will be some surges after the first surge."
The northern tip of California was the first hit today. Tsunami warnings have been sounded all morning in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, where some residents were moved to higher ground.
Pacifica's eight schools are closed today as a precaution against flooding. The main beach in Pacifica also closed, and two officers were on hand to warn the curious.
Several dozen residents gathered at Pedro Point to check out the threatened tsunami. A few big swells covered the beach around 8:10 a.m., prompting those gathered to joke about the as-of-yet unimpressive show.
"I think this may be it right now," said 20-year Pacifica resident Maurice Land Strauss, pointing to where a number of rocks had been inundated by seawater.
"I think I saw a bigger wave yesterday," resident Randy Orloff agreed.
Henderson said waves as high as 2.8 feet could hit Pacifica, 3.4 feet in Half Moon Bay, 3.3 feet in Santa Cruz Harbor, 3.6 feet could hit Point Arena; and 5.3 feet at Rio del Mar Beach.
A tsunami could bring higher-than-usual waves for up to 12 hours.
The city of San Francisco has not ordered evacuations, but officials say residents should resist the urge to head to area beaches.
The San Francisco Police Department closed the upper and lower Great Highway from Point Lobos and 48th Avenue to Lake Merced, and the National Park Service closed Ocean Beach, Baker Beach, China Beach and Fort Funston. Aquatic Park has also been closed. Two Municipal Railway lines that operate on the Great Highway have been rerouted.
Police officers who work with the homeless unit are warning transients near the Beach Chalet restaurant area to move, authorities said.
Mayor Ed Lee said officials had been monitoring the situation since the earthquake hit Japan last night, but waves are not expected to overtop sea walls.
BART officials said they were "fearful" of a possible suspension of service, but as of 8 a.m., BART is hopeful that service will continue running, said BART spokesman Linton Johnson.
If service is indeed suspended, trains may not run during the remainder of the morning commute between West Oakland and Daly City, Johnson said. "Water, people and electricity don't mix," Johnson said, adding shutting down BART service would be an "extraordinary precaution in extraordinary times.
"We've never had a tsunami warning this big. We are being overly cautious," Johnson said.
Vallejo canceled three ferries this morning and replaced them with a bus bridge to take riders to San Francisco.
Commuters who usually ride the Vallejo ferry said the buses to the city and nearby BART station are actually faster than the boats. But some longtime commuters said they thought the cancellation was excessive, especially since Vallejo is so far from the Golden Gate.
"It seems a bit much," said Donald Stewart of Vallejo. "But I guess no one wants to be the one who didn't do something if something happens." He looked over his shoulder at the water and rolled his eyes.
The last significant tsunami warning in San Francisco came after the 8.8 magnitude quake that hit Chile in February 2010. No damage was sustained. The 8.9 magnitude quake in Japan was followed by aftershocks as big as the 1906 quake that destroyed San Francisco.
State officials are having regular conference calls with county and other state agencies, including the California Highway Patrol and Caltrans, to "try to get them the best information we've got," Huston said.
Six flights to or from San Francisco International Airport and Narita International Airport in Tokyo have been canceled, while at least two other flights have diverted to other airports in Japan, said SFO spokesman Michael McCarron.
U.S. Coast Guard cutter and aircraft crews are positioning themselves to be ready to conduct response and survey missions, Coast Guard Lt. Patrick Montgomery said
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