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Friday's earthquake also sent strong ocean waves surging toward the northern coast of California. One young man was swept out to sea and the water caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. Four counties along the coast remain under a state of emergency. NPR's Richard Gonzalez reports on the damage and the lessons learned.
RICHARD GONZALEZ: Crescent City, California, near the Oregon border has earned its reputation as a tsunami magnet. The small half-moon shaped harbor traps the energy from churning ocean waves. Crescent City has absorbed more than 30 tsunamis in the past eight decades.
Mr. IVAN SIMPSON (Deckhand): We're all shut down, the whole fleet up here.
GONZALEZ: That's Ivan Simpson, a deckhand on a fishing boat that survived. Others weren't so lucky. The tsunami sank 16 boats and damaged 47 others.
Mr. SIMPSON: Seems like it's going to be awhile before we can even tie up in here or work out of this port or any other port around here.
GONZALEZ: The tsunami destroyed California's most productive seafood harbor just as it was recovering from another tsunami five years ago. With no place for fishing vessels to tie down, the entire commercial fishing industry, one of the underpinnings of the local economy, is, for all practical purposes, dead.
Mr. SIMPSON: This is my source of income, my captain's and a lot - there's, you know, 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. We had a fairly good season until this.
GONZALEZ: The tsunami also washed away thousands of dollars of crabbing traps and gear out to sea. They are likely irretrievable. Officials fear another potential catastrophe. The sunk or damaged boats still hold fuel on board, says Alexia Retallack of the state's Department of Fish and Game.
Ms. ALEXIA RETALLACK (California Department of Fish and Game): That fuel, should there be a rupture, a puncture or something along those lines, could get into the environment. So every vessel that's either sunken or currently in the harbor and compromised is a source of petroleum product so our idea is to get as much of that out of there to remove the threat.
GONZALEZ: 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, Oregon, was trashed. Even so, some experts say what happened last Friday is not the worst case event.
Ms. LORI DENGLER (Humboldt State University): In this case, Mother Nature was actually a little bit kind for the folks on the West Coast of the U.S.
GONZALEZ: That's Lori Dengler, a geologist at Humboldt State University in Northern California.
Ms. DENGLER: The Japan tsunami could have been far, far worse if it had only occurred six hours earlier or 18 hours later. Why? Because the largest tsunami surges coincided with our lowest tide.
GONZALEZ: 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.
Richard Gonzalez, NPR News.