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Crescent City Has a Flashback to 1964

The coastal town near Oregon border hasn't forgotten the wave that claimed 11 lives, so it took Tuesday's tsunami warning to heart.

June 16, 2005|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — In a town still nursing its psychological wounds from a fatal tsunami that struck here four decades ago, nobody gets accused of crying wolf when the emergency sirens start blaring.

That's what happened Tuesday night in this crescent-shaped coastal burg of 8,800 residents near the Oregon border after a massive offshore earthquake raised fears of a reprise of the wrecking-ball tidal wave that took 11 lives in March 1964.

Crescent City was not taking any chances this time around.

More than 4,000 people were briefly evacuated from low-lying areas as tsunami sirens screeched and police cruisers moved along downtown streets, broadcasting evacuation orders after the 7:51 p.m. temblor rattled buildings and residents.

The tiny staff of the 6,000-circulation newspaper briefly abandoned its downtown offices. Folks closed down the town's bingo hall, and one theater even issued "tsunami checks" after switching off the projector during "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith."

As the alarms blared, downtown traffic along U.S. Highway 101 was packed as motorists fled the danger zone where the last wave struck. Many locals headed east into the hills on U.S. Highway 199, and nearby Howland Hill Road -- in places a one-lane dirt track -- was also bumper to bumper, residents say.

For old-timers, the night evoked eerie memories of the 1964 tempest that destroyed 29 blocks and sank dozens of fishing boats that bobbed helplessly in the harbor. That tsunami was triggered by a 9.2 magnitude quake off the Alaskan coast.

"If you're a local and you know this town's history, you head for the hills," said Jan Munson, manager of the beachside Surf Apartments, a senior housing complex from where most of the 56 residents were escorted to safety late Tuesday.

"After the warnings went out," Munson said, "I saw a bunch of people who went back to the beach to wait for the tsunami, and I figured they were tourists or they were just stupid."

During the hourlong evacuation, downtown was briefly emptied of its bars and restaurants as customers fled, leaving uneaten meals on tables. In some cases, they followed the waitresses and cooks who had already bolted for the door.

Hoteliers knocked on doors, telling tourists to hit the road. Greg Dirk, a South Dakota highway patrolman vacationing with his wife and young son, were unloading their luggage outside a motel when another guest told them not to bother.

"The girl told us we had just a few minutes to get to higher ground," said Caly Dirk. "We looked out ourselves and said, 'We're from South Dakota.' We had no idea what they were talking about."

At the Eagle's Hall, they pulled the plug on the weekly Tuesday night bingo event, as a group of grumbling seniors reluctantly left behind their boards.

"My neighbor came home all mad," said Julie Duhaime, a waitress at Glen's Bakery & Restaurant, which displays black and white photographs of the damage from the 1964 wave. "She just kept saying, 'We weren't half-done with our bingo yet!' "

At one point, the shaking was so great that Bev Noll, co-owner of Noll's Surf & Skate, worried that the shop's 21-foot-long skateboard, hanging from the ceiling, might shake loose from its moorings. The skateboard is included in the Guinness Book of Records.

This is a town full of reminders of the 1964 tsunami, the only one in the continental U.S. to result in a death toll. Downtown eateries such as the KFC bear plaques, about head high, showing the wave's high-water marks. An outdoor mall is named Tsunami Landing.

Del Norte County Sheriff Dean Wilson said that within minutes of Tuesday's earthquake, which struck just before sunset, officials were warned by the National Weather Service that a tsunami could strike and alarms were sounded along a large portion of the Northern California coast.

In Crescent City, the first alarm was sounded at 8:14 p.m., Wilson said. "The weather folks told us we had about a 15-minute window -- that the wave, if it was coming, would get here at 8:29 p.m."

At Ocean World, a local marine park housed in a converted barge, Wilson's wife, Mary, the park's owner, was meeting with her staff in front of a half-million-gallon tank when the earthquake hit.

Moments before, the sharks in the big tank became agitated, Mary Wilson said. Then a huge fiberglass manta ray over her head began to shake. That's when her husband called, urging her to evacuate. "I told him, 'What about the sea lions? I've got to get the sea lions out.' "

She had wanted to load the two animals into her van, but her husband said, "Mary, you've got 15 minutes. Now go."

At the offices of the Daily Triplicate, reporter Katie Klingsporn was putting the finishing touches on a City Hall story when the night editor told her, "I think you may have another story to write."

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