SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Tsunami-wary town wants to know why it wasn't warned
San Francisco Chronicle


November 17, 2006

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. -- Earl Hensel rushed to the Crescent City Harbor just in time to see water gushing in from the sea, sweeping away everything in its path. The most devastating tidal wave to hit the California coast in four decades washed away docks, damaged boats and spread debris all over the harbor.

Hensel was relieved that his own boat was spared Wednesday, but the next day he could not get one thing out of his mind as he and a dozen other fishermen mulled over the damage inside the harbor.




"They say there was a warning call, but there was no siren or general alarm," said Hensel, who is in his 80s. "It's a pretty somber group here looking at the damage."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had warned officials in Crescent City that a small surge from an 8.1-magnitude earthquake near Japan was likely. But fishermen and harbor officials said the tsunami was stronger and lasted longer than anyone expected - details that an official from the federal agency did not convey to the city's harbormaster.

"We were surprised," said harbormaster Richard Young. "I don't know if it is our fault or their fault, but we need to get tied into the warning system better."

The issue is particularly important in this rugged Northern California fishing port, which has been hit by more tsunamis over the years than anywhere else in California. The crescent-shaped city was nearly wiped out in 1964 when a 21-foot-high wave destroyed most of the town center, killing 11 people, many of whom had gone down to the shore to see the waves coming in.

Smaller ocean surges similar to this week's also hit the town in 1946, 1952, 1957, 1960 and 1994, according to Lori Dengler, a professor of geology and an expert on tsunamis at Humboldt State University.

"Crescent City is very special," she said, explaining how a reef that runs into the ocean at Point St. George directs waves into the bay. Tsunamis rolling into the bay then bounce off the crescent-shaped shoreline, magnifying their intensity. The tsunami that hit Wednesday was actually a series of swells up to 6 feet high that were triggered by the earthquake. The waves, which resembled a fast-moving river pouring into the harbor, caused an estimated $700,000 in damage, officials said, the highest toll since 1964.

Nobody was hurt, and damage to the fishing fleet was minimal, according to harbor officials. But the weathered folk who make their living on the sea want to know why there wasn't more of a warning.

The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, canceled tsunami alerts at 6:40 a.m., about seven hours before the waves rolled into Crescent City, Dengler said. Troy Nicolini, a meteorologist for NOAA, said he called Young, the Crescent City harbormaster, in the morning and told him that a tsunami about 3 feet high would likely hit at 11:38 a.m.

The waves were too small to order an evacuation, so the siren was not activated, said Nicolini, who acknowledged that he failed to tell harbor officials that the tsunami system could last for several hours.

Young, meanwhile, warned everyone to secure their boats, but "nothing happened, so we thought the concern was over with," he said.

At about 1 p.m., Young looked out the window of the harbor office as he finished his lunch - and saw a river of water surging into the harbor. It was so strong, he said, that a group of seals trying to swim out were washed back. The surges got stronger until the docks began breaking up and six or seven boats became untethered and started ricocheting around the harbor.

Young and several other harbor workers rushed out to help secure the boats, but they quickly realized their mistake when even bigger waves began surging into the harbor.

"Everything just started pancaking in, and there was water coming over the docks," said Paul McAndrews, the harbor facilities manager. "It was a situation where you had to watch what was coming in to you to avoid being swept away or hit by something."


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