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Crescent City caught off guard by seawater surge

After a tsunami alert is canceled, a surprise wave washes in, causing damage but no injuries.

November 17, 2006|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Harbor officials in Crescent City said Thursday that they were caught by surprise when a seawater surge caused $700,000 in damage to docks and boats six hours after experts canceled a tsunami alert along the Pacific Coast.

Richard Young, harbormaster at the small Northern California port, said he thought they had dodged a bullet until ocean water began rushing into the boat basin about 1 p.m. Wednesday.

"We were told to expect it at 11:38 a.m., but when it didn't hit we figured we got lucky," Young said. "We didn't expect it at 1 o'clock."

The West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, issued an alert shortly after an 8.1 earthquake occurred near the Kuril Islands off Russia early Wednesday. But by 6:41 a.m. Pacific Standard Time all the warnings had been canceled, with an advisory saying a damaging tsunami was not expected along the West Coast.

In Crescent City, where residents still live with memories of a catastrophic tsunami that killed 11 people in 1964, harbor officials had been told that any surge would probably begin to hit before noon and measure about 3 feet.

Before noon, fishermen working on their boats barely noticed a difference in the waves. In fact, the tsunami was just beginning to build. At 1 p.m. a dock broke loose as water poured into the harbor. The greatest damage occurred about 2 p.m., when the surge topped 5 feet, Young said.

"It just looked like a really rapid river current," he said. "Tidal wave is an apt name for them. It's like the tide is coming in really fast. What normally takes six hours occurs in about 10 minutes."

The current deposited one 20-foot sailboat atop a concrete float. One dock was ripped in half, and another was overturned.

But no boats sank, and no one was hurt.

"We didn't have anyone get so much as a sliver, and we were thankful for that," Young said.

The region has always been "tsunami aware," Young said, with warning signs posted along the coast and a siren system to warn residents if a catastrophic wave is expected. But Wednesday was a learning experience, he said: "Oh boy, was it ever."

"We learned about the pattern of them, and what to be aware of," he said -- in particular that the biggest surges can arrive hours after the initial effects of a tsunami start rippling to shore.

Paul Whitmore, director of the tsunami warning center, said the confusion in Crescent City could prompt adjustments in the way warnings are issued and more education about what to expect.

"I think the real lesson learned here is we need a better way to communicate in these instances where it's more than a minor wave but not quite a head-to-the-hills wave," he said.

Whitmore said officials tussle with when to issue warnings -- and when to call them off. Last year, for instance, the center issued a warning for the West Coast after a 7.2 earthquake occurred off the coast of Northern California, but no damage occurred. Experts worry that if they issue too many warnings that come to nothing, they could end up lulling coastal residents into not taking them seriously.

Modeling done by the tsunami center determined that Wednesday's surge in Crescent City edged toward the threshold at which damage might take place but not close enough for the sort of warning that prompts an evacuation.

"Since we did have some indication this could be more dangerous in Northern California, perhaps there could have been some local statement put out," Whitmore said. "These sorts of events don't occur very often, but when they do, we learn a lot every time."

Jose Borrero of the USC Tsunami Research Center said the center's simulations indicated that Crescent City would experience a "pretty significant wave" and that the region should have been kept on watch.

"I think this was a good test for the system," Borrero said. "We still need to refine it. This shows that even small tsunamis can be damaging."

Particularly in Crescent City. Shaped like a half moon, the bay and its boat harbor have proved to be a "tsunami magnet," Borrero said, with the right shape, size and depth to catch the magnified energy of an undersea earthquake and turn waves into a destructive force.

The worst-case scenario is a big earthquake in the Gulf of Alaska, he said.

Just that sort of temblor sent a series of massive swells crashing into Crescent City in 1964, destroying 289 homes and businesses. The 11 fatalities are the only recorded tsunami deaths in the continental U.S.

Bill Parker was the region's civil defense director back then, a time, he said, when folks didn't even know what tsunami meant: "No one could even spell it."

The region had been hit by seawater surges over the years that sent water three or four blocks into town, carrying debris and logs onto the streets, "but nothing like what happened in '64," Parker said. "The biggie just wiped everything out."

Wood-frame houses were swept out to sea as the water surged inland and then retreated. A few brick and concrete buildings managed to stay standing, but most structures were toppled, wrested from their foundations.

Parker was troubled to read in the local paper this week that some residents, upon hearing that a tsunami was approaching, headed to the shoreline to watch. He worries that locals could get into bad habits that, another time, could prove fatal.

"You can't outrun a tsunami," he said. "The only way is to evacuate."

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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