By Dan Levine and Alexandra Valencia
SAN FRANCISCO/QUITO (Reuters) - Thousands of people fled their homes along the Pacific coast of North and South America on Friday as a tsunami triggered by Japan's massive earthquake reached the region but appeared to spare it from major damage.
The giant wall of water lost much of its energy as it roared thousands of miles (km) across the Pacific Ocean, but many governments took no chances, ordering large-scale evacuations of coastal areas, ports and refineries.
The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center downgraded the situation in California from a tsunami "warning" to an "advisory," said California Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jordan Scott.
"Things seem to be settling down at the moment," he said.
Scott added some areas were still experiencing surge activity and that residents should stay out of places deemed off limits by emergency personnel.
With the tsunami still poised to strike South America's coastline, Chile evacuated thousands from flood-prone areas and Peru took similar measures, also closing beaches. Chile was hit by a magnitude 8.8 quake and ensuing tsunamis a year ago that killed more than 500 people.
The waves are expected to reach mainland Chile around midnight local time. The government also upgraded the tsunami alert for Chile's remote Easter Island. But an hour after the high waves were due to roll in, there was still no sign of them, the island's governor said.
Earlier in the day, waves crashing ashore were larger than normal in California and Mexico, but only the town of Crescent City, near the California border with Oregon, and Santa Cruz south of San Francisco suffered any real damage.
About 35 boats and most of the harbor docks were damaged in Crescent City, where waves were more than 6 feet, while Santa Cruz sustained about $2 million in damages to docks and vessels, emergency management officials said.
Rescue services were searching for a 25-year-old man who was swept out to sea while standing on a sandbar at the mouth of the Klamath River in California.
Thousands of residents were evacuated along the California coast, including 6,000 near Santa Cruz, before the tsunami made landfall, said Jordan Scott, spokesman for the California Emergency Management Agency.
The port of Brookings-Harbor, the busiest recreation port on the Oregon coast, was largely destroyed, said operations manager Chris Cantwell. "Right now we are in the middle of a big mess," he said. "The surge pulled some (boats) out to sea, about a dozen sank and we've got boats everywhere sitting on top of one another and all over the place."
SIRENS BLARE IN HAWAII
In Hawaii, 3,800 miles from Japan, the main airports on at least three of the major islands -- Maui, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii -- were shut down as a precaution, and the U.S. Navy ordered all warships in Pearl Harbor to remain in port to support rescue missions as needed.
Civil defense sirens blared statewide, starting shortly before 10 p.m. local time, and police with bullhorns urged residents near shore to higher ground.
No injuries or property damage were reported after a series of four tsunami waves hit the Hawaiian island of Oahu, said John Cummings, a spokesman for emergency management in Honolulu. The tsunami warning for Hawaii was later downgraded.
President Barack Obama, a native of Hawaii, was notified of the massive Japanese quake at 4 a.m./0900 GMT and instructed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be prepared to help affected U.S. states and territories, the White House said.
CHILE RESIDENTS ALERT
Ecuador took extreme precautions after President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency across the Andean nation on national television and urged residents to move inland.
The area at risk includes the Galapagos Islands -- a popular tourist destination known for its wildlife, including endangered species, that inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin's evolution theory in the 19th century.
Oil firm Petroecuador halted production.
Many ports along Mexico's western coast were closed, including Los Cabos and Salina Cruz in southern Oaxaca, the only oil-exporting terminal on the country's Pacific side.
Mexican officials said high waves had hit the northwestern Pacific coast but there were no reports of damage.
Authorities in Canada's British Columbia advised residents to evacuate marinas, beaches and other low-lying areas, but officials there said the waves were minimal.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington, Braden Reddall and Peter Henderson in San Francisco, Suzanne Roig and Jorene Barut in Honolulu, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Simon Gardner in Santiago; Anahi Rama, Cyntia Barrera Diaz, Mica Rosenberg and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico; Writing by Frances Kerry, Ross Colvin and Robin Emmott; Editing by Peter Cooney)