Tsunami Cripples Several West Coast Harbors

Half-sunken boats, docks and debris lie tangled in Crescent City, Calif., after a tsunami surged Friday in Northern California. i

Half-sunken boats, docks and debris lie tangled in Crescent City, Calif., after a tsunami surged Friday in Northern California. Josh Jackson/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Josh Jackson/AP
Half-sunken boats, docks and debris lie tangled in Crescent City, Calif., after a tsunami surged Friday in Northern California.

Half-sunken boats, docks and debris lie tangled in Crescent City, Calif., after a tsunami surged Friday in Northern California.

Josh Jackson/AP

The tsunami that devastated Japan also sent strong currents to California's northern coast, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage and leaving four coastal counties under a state of emergency.

Crescent City, Calif., near the Oregon border, ranks as the state's most productive seafood harbor. But with no place for fishing vessels to tie down, the entire commercial fishing industry is, for all practical purposes, dead.

Crescent City has earned its reputation as a "tsunami magnet." The small, half-moon-shaped harbor traps the energy from churning ocean waves and has absorbed more than 30 tsunamis in the past eight decades. Last week's tsunami, which hit as the harbor was still recovering from another tsunami that hit five years ago, sank 16 boats and damaged 47 others.

"We're all shut down here, the whole fleet," says Ivan Simpson, a deckhand on a fishing boat that survived. "Seems like it's going to be a while before we can even tie up in here or work out of this port or any other port around here."

"This is my source of income, my captains, there's two to five people on each boat. You figure you got 100 or 200 boats that are shut down. That's a lot of people out of work," Simpson says. "We had a fairly good season until this."

The tsunami also washed thousands of dollars of crabbing traps and gear out to sea. They are likely irretrievable.

Officials here fear another potential catastrophe. The sunken or damaged boats still hold fuel onboard, says Alexia Retallack of the state's Department of Fish and Game.

"That fuel, should there be a rupture or puncture or something along those lines, could get into the environment," Retallack says. "So every vessel that is sunken or currently in the harbor and compromised is a source of petroleum product, so our idea is to get as much of it out of there to remove the threat."

Officials in other coastal harbors face similar threats. In Santa Cruz, about 500 miles south, 30 vessels sank or remain unaccounted for. And north of Crescent City, the harbor at Brookings, Ore., was trashed.

'Could Have Been Far, Far Worse'

Even so, some experts say what happened last Friday is not the worst case event.

"In this case, Mother Nature was actually a little bit kind for the folks on the West Coast of the U.S.," says Lori Dengler, a geologist at Humboldt State University in Northern California. "The Japan tsunami could have been far, far worse if it had happened six hours earlier to 18 hours later. Why? Because the largest tsunami surges coincided with our lowest tide."

If there's any other good news, it's that scores of boats that normally dock in Crescent City managed to escape to nearby Humboldt Bay. They took advantage of a sophisticated warning and evacuation system developed over the years — ever since the legendary 1964 tsunami in which 11 people were killed and the city's downtown was wiped out.

Ironically, next week is California' s Tsunami Awareness Week. And many more Californians will likely pay attention given the real evidence of disaster.

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