In the wake of the massive subduction zone earthquake and tsunami emanating from off the east coast of Japan’s Honshu island, it’s important to remember the damage to the Northwest caused by the 1964 tsunami following the Good Friday earthquake on March 27, 1964. And, to keep in mind that much worse will happen if a coastal subduction zone quake happens here. After a 2005 tsunami scare in Crescent City, California, the San Francisco Chronicle reported from the town:
Over coffee at Glen’s, Bill Parker, Del Norte County’s former volunteer director of civil defense, recalled what he was doing the night of March 27, 1964, when a magnitude 9.2 quake off Alaska sent a series of terrible waves to Crescent City.
A mortician, Parker had been doing business in Brookings, Ore., when he got a call from the police. He hitchhiked back south with a driver who was stinking drunk. The next morning, he called the governor’s office and reported, “Crescent City is gone.”
About 150 buildings were destroyed or damaged. Boats were beached, and trailers were pulled into the sea.
“Cars were strewn everywhere,” recalled Sandy Nuss. “There were motels and houses in the middle of the street. The water rushed through the appliance store, and when it receded there were washers and dryers and refrigerators all over the place. It was a real mess.”
Nuss, a 67-year-old researcher at the Del Norte County Historical Society, said she had watched the tsunami from her home, inland and uphill from the coast.
“People saw the harbor go dry, and no one knew what it meant then,” she said. “Everyone knows what it means now.”
M.D. McGuire, 81, said he had responded to the first wave by driving to the harbor to see if his fishing boat was still there. He stopped by the Long Branch Tavern to buy cigarettes. Soon, the second wave came and his pickup was carried off by the flow.
When the water crashed through the tavern, McGuire and the bar owner’s son, Gary Clawson, moved several people to the roof. Then the two men swam to high ground, got McGuire’s rowboat and had a friend tow it back to town.
Clawson picked up five people from the tavern roof, including his mother, father and fiancée. But before they could make it to safety, the boat was pulled into a culvert, and only Clawson escaped.
When McGuire showed a reporter the culvert Wednesday, he had to pause to collect himself.
In November 2006, when an 8.1 earthquake off the Japan coast created a tsunami that did more damage to Crescent City, Glen Martin of the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the scene, and added some notes on the 1964 tsunami:
A tsunami generated by a powerful undersea earthquake near Japan struck the small Northern California fishing port of Crescent City on Wednesday, destroying docks, sinking a boat and fraying nerves.
Bill Steven, a commander with the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Department, said the tsunami was “more a series of big surges rather than waves,” but he said the damage to the town’s harbor was significant.
The surges were reported at 5 to 6 feet high.
“The water surged back and forth like a river, and our docks aren’t designed to handle swift water,” Steven said. “About 50 percent of the harbor was affected. There’s a lot of torn-up foam, wood and concrete. We know at least one boat was sunk, and we had to round up about 12 more that were torn from their moorings.”
Steven said no fatalities or injuries were reported.
Crescent City residents are particularly sensitive to tsunami threats. The town was struck by a 21-foot-high tsunami in 1964 that killed 11 people and destroyed most of the town center.
Steven said Del Norte County officials received a notification from the National Weather Service on Wednesday morning that a 3- to 5-foot surge resulting from an 8.1 magnitude quake near Japan would hit the Crescent City region about 11:40 a.m.
“We did have a very small surge at that time, and then everybody went back to business as usual,” Steven said.
Then around 2:30, Steven said, residents noticed an ominous sign — water started running out of the town’s harbor, a classic indication of an approaching tsunami.
“You don’t like to see that,” Steven said. “It looked like a very fast river.”
But instead of a large wave, Steven said, the tsunami was manifested as another large surge flowing back into the harbor.
“It went on like that until about 5 p.m., maybe later,” Steven said. “Just like a big river surging back and forth. It really hammered our docks. Pieces had to be tied off, whole sections disappeared.”
Harbormaster Richard Young, who described the event as a “river within the ocean,” estimated the damage to the docks and boats at around $700,000.
Steven said the surges came at a particularly inopportune time for the close-knit, isolated fishing community.
“Everybody was just getting warmed up for the Dungeness crab season,” he said. “Unfortunately, this could really slow things down.”
Steven, who was born the year after the killer waves hit the town in 1964, said his father often reminisced about the event.
“He was especially amazed by the tremendous field of debris it left,” he said. “It’s still a major topic of conversation in this town.”
In the immediate aftermath of the December 26, 2004 earthquake and tsunami off the Indonesia coast, Richard Eisner, coastal administrative chief for the California Office of Emergency Services, issued this warning in a San Francisco Chronicle article:
Eisner urged Californians to remember one of the ghastly lessons of the Crescent City tsunami of 1964, when 11 people died after the coastal town in Del Norte County was clobbered by a wave triggered by a mega-quake in distant Alaska. That lesson is this: The worst wave is not necessarily the first wave that hits the shore.
Tsunami waves tend to come in multiples — like multiple ripples on a pond after you toss a stone into it. Worse, the second wave often carries debris sucked to sea by the first wave.
“In Crescent City in 1964,” Eisner noted, “most of those who perished perished because they assumed the tsunami was over (after the first wave, and said), ‘Let’s go take a look.’ The second wave came in — these waves move 20 to 30 mph, you can’t outrun it — and the water doesn’t have to be very deep with those velocities to run you down, and you’re battered by debris and you’re battered into buildings.”
Finally, in a March 2005 review of The Raging Sea, a book by Dennis M. Powers that describes the tsunami, Robert Krier of the San Diego Union-Tribune quoted from the book:
The description of two men fishing in a river near the shore gives a good idea of the shock and horror one might feel upon seeing an approaching tsunami:
“Suddenly, a loud crash that sounded ‘like a cannon shot’ cracked through the air.
“Jerking their heads toward the sound, they froze at the sight of a twelve-foot wall of water bearing down on them in the moonlight. It then stood poised overhead, as if a film had stopped mid-show. The bulging wave’s white crest held captive huge logs and driftwood that protruded from it like a crown of thorns.
“The churning ocean crashed over the two men, as the wave pounded into them and up the river. The rampaging currents buffeted their bodies, twisting them savagely, head over heels. They reached instinctively for anything to grab onto, desperately trying to work their way back to the surface.”
The waves pushed the men two miles inland. One of the two survived the scramble, due largely to the heroic efforts of his friend, who was later swept out to sea and drowned when the waters retreated in an equally frightening pullback.
Powers quotes a father of four who was camping with his family on a beach nearby.
“We were awakened shortly after 11 o’clock by a small wave. … We grabbed the kids. But then came huge waves — battering waves. We were completely helpless. I had two of the kids by the hand, but I have no idea what happened. Nobody had a chance.”
All four of the man’s children were killed.
The book closely follows the story of a group in the Long Branch Tavern. The owner and friends and relatives had returned to the bar after the first two small waves hit. When they found no damage, they celebrated their good fortune, plus the birthday of one member of the group. Five of the group later died in a mad scramble after the third and fourth waves hit.
That group’s survivors lived to tell gripping and heroic stories, filled with gut-wrenching twists, escapes and life-or-death, split-second decisions. Don’t be surprised if their tale hits the multiplex within a few years, now that tsunamis are on our minds.
Powers gives first-hand accounts of houses floating for blocks in the waves, with people trapped inside. He tells of others scrambling onto rooftops, clapping when the structures held; and of frantic drivers and passengers trapped in vehicles bobbing in the churning water. He describes the subsequent fires that compounded the calamity and created a scene out of “Dante’s Inferno.”
In a 2005 review of Powers’ book, David Campiche of the Daily Astorian discussed the ongoing threat:
It is hard to swallow the medicine spooned out in Dennis Powers’ “The Raging Sea,” a detailed account of the four waves that wiped out between 10 to 20 square miles of Crescent City, Calif., on Good Friday, 41 years ago.
Powers shares all. This 288-page account carefully recreates the jagged depictions of hundreds of lives affected by those monstrous waves. Many survived, often by acts of heroism, or more often through the sheer human will to survive. Indeed, there is hope in that, and in the fact that so many did survive and rebuild. Of course, there were the others who didn’t. One reads on and on, each page more than a recollection, each of poignant significance to oceanside earth dwellers.
Each page fills in the jags still empty in our current and fertile imagination. What actually happened on the beaches in Indonesia? How big were those waves anyway, 30 feet or 80? Like so many of the victims of the catastrophe, people were led by their curiosity right to the water’s edge, so they could watch the debacle unfold. Unfold it did. Most, who pushed too close, died violently.
Truth be told, the majority of human beings avoid too much bad news. We are surrounded by constant reminders of aberrant human behavior and Mother Nature posturing with all her might. We know that every day, human beings are dying in Iraq. Do we really need to read the newspaper each morning with the intention of gleaning specific facts? Some do, and some don’t.
It is for this specific reason that Powers’ book is drawn into the ebb of human emotions. The book will remain uncomfortable in the minds of many of its readers, particularly those endangered by the reality that waves do come, and regularly, in geological time.
In all fairness, the book performs a service: It anoints us with truth. The tsunami that reaped devastation of Crescent City was not remotely as devastating as the cataclysms that recently struck the beaches of the South Pacific and not remotely as devastating as the projected quake and subsequent waves that sooner or later will reap havoc on the Oregon and Washington beaches.
Are we listening? Are developers listening? One wonders if they have built their homes at the ocean’s edge, or retired to some safe outpost like Oaxaca or some other inland property.
Powers’ book is an important read. One can’t bluff 30-foot waves, can’t imagine 80-footers. Ignore the truth and it will come, anyway.