He also warned people in Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the West Coast to heed the instructions of local authorities about evacuations and other measures in advance of a tsunami moving across the Pacific Ocean.
"We can't control nature, but we can and must be prepared for disaster when it strikes," he said in a statement at the White House.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning — its highest alert — for Hawaii. The first waves were expected to arrive in Hawaii late afternoon EST. A lower-grade tsunami advisory was in effect for the coast of California and an Alaskan coastal area.
The Navy was moving more than a half dozen vessels Saturday to try to avoid damage from the tsunami.
A frigate, three destroyers and two smaller vessels were being sent out of Hawaii's Pearl Harbor in a cruiser out of the base at San Diego in California, said Lt. Myers Vasquez, a Navy spokesman in the Pentagon. The ships are safer out on the sea than if they were tied to piers where they could be banged around by the waves, meaning damage to the vessels as well as the piers, he said.