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A Quiet Anniversary for Huge Tidal Wave

The biggest tsunami in California history crashed ashore 40 years ago, killing 12.

March 27, 2004|Kenneth Reich | Times Staff Writer

Forty years ago tonight, California suffered its deadliest tsunami in recorded history when a series of waves from the magnitude-9.2 Alaska earthquake swept down the Pacific coast at 415 mph.

The first wave hit Crescent City, Calif., at 11:52 p.m. on March 27, 1964, drawing sightseers to the harbor.

Nearly two hours later, a fourth wave crested at 16 feet above the high-tide line, and was responsible for 10 deaths and the destruction of 54 homes and 42 businesses in the town of 4,000.

A single death also was caused by waves at Klamath and another at Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco. There was even $575,000 in damage from sudden surges of water hours later in Marina del Rey and the Los Angeles Harbor.

The Crescent City newspaper, the Daily Triplicate, will observe the event with five articles in today's edition, said Editor Mike Schmeltzer. He said there had been suggestions that a wreath-laying ceremony be held at the town's monument to the victims. Other than that, no commemorations are planned.

Indian legends speak of bigger tsunamis in California centuries ago, but these stories are vague. According to Lori Dengler, a seismologist and historian at Humboldt State University, there have been 21 verified tsunamis, mostly small, on California's coast since 1855.

In all but four cases, Dengler said, the waves were started by distant quakes, volcanic eruptions or landslides. The others were derived from earthquakes not far offshore. These tsunamis could be the most dangerous, because they could come with little or no warning immediately after a temblor.

Bill Stamps, who broadcasted from a tiny radio station in Crescent City on the night of the 1964 tsunami, recalled Friday that there had been a warning from federal authorities of waves being "probable but not confirmed" 50 minutes before they arrived. It was time enough for him to go to his station, which normally only broadcasted during the daytime, and take to the airwaves. The station was finally knocked off the air by the fourth wave.

"When the wave hit the Bob Ames Co., a block in from the harbor, it carried refrigerators, washers and dryers right out of the store and down to the beach," Stamps remembered.

Willy Griffin, who wrote a book about the event titled "Dark Disaster," which is still sold around town, said this week that six of the people who died tried to escape from a bar, but their car got caught in a drain.

He said he and some of his friends observed a phenomenon frequently reported in tsunamis: the water receding from the shore and leaving areas looking like extreme low tide, just before the water surged in.

An essay for the Del Norte County Historical Society by Peggy Coons, who lived in a lighthouse just outside the harbor in 1964, said she and her husband first sensed something was wrong when they noticed rocks that were never covered up in the worst of storms were submerged in the sea.

"We headed for the highest point overlooking the town," she wrote. "The first wave was just reaching the town. Giant logs, trees and other debris were pitching and churning high on the crest of the water.... As the impact began, the loud blast of breaking glass and splintering wood reached us, buildings crumpled, cars overturned, some smashed through plate-glass windows, while the water plowed down the streets."

Orville Magoon, then with the Army Corps of Engineers, was assigned to survey the damage from Crescent City south to Half Moon Bay.

He said Friday that there had been basically two types of damage -- the kind caused by the water as it rose and swept back out, and the kind done by logs and other debris carried by the water, which hit structures and caused walls to buckle.

Crescent City today has two sirens designed to send a pulsating warning through the community of any future tsunami.

Allen Winogradov, a coordinator of emergency services in Del Norte County, said Friday, "The main lesson we learned is that we have to take steps to make the public more aware of the danger."

But, he acknowledged, dangerous tsunamis occur so rarely that often new residents have never experienced one and are not wary enough. Making too much of small tsunamis may only create a "cry wolf" mentality and lead people not to take warnings seriously enough, he said.

The Alaskan quake was the second most powerful ever recorded by earthquake instruments, outdone only by the 9.5-magnitude Chilean earthquake of 1960. It killed 115 people in Alaska, 106 of them by tsunamis.

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