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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On March 27th, 1964, Alaska was hit by the largest earthquake ever recorded on the North American continent. In Anchorage, resident Robert Pate recorded his reaction.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. ROBERT PATE (Resident, Anchorage): Man, that's an earthquake. Hey, that's an earthquake for sure. Whoo!

(Soundbite of destruction)

Mr. PATE: Oh, man, I'm telling you, I have never lived through anything like this before in my life.

MONTAGNE: The massive 9.2-magnitude quake destroyed downtown Anchorage. It then triggered a tsunami with waves rushing at the speed of a jetliner down the Pacific Northwest coastline. Outside of Alaska, the hardest-hit community was Crescent City, California, which juts into the Pacific Ocean below the Oregon border. Much of that town of 3,000 was destroyed by giant waves that crashed through Crescent City in the middle of the night. Eleven people were killed. Four decades later, the community is relearning some hard lessons from the past. NPR's Richard Gonzales has our story.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

On the first Tuesday of every month at 10 AM, the residents of Crescent City, California, hear this.

(Soundbite of horn)

GONZALES: It's a test of the city's tsunami warning siren, but 41 years ago on Good Friday, 1964, Crescent City had no sirens. Back then, the only real warnings were the tsunami alerts on radio and TV. By midnight, Crescent City was seeing only minor flooding along the storefronts near the shore. There seemed to be no cause for worry, but then as in a typical tsunami, the ocean completely withdrew.

Mr. DENNIS POWERS (Author): `As if someone had pulled the plug. It receded a distance of three-quarters of a mile from the shore. We were looking down as though from a high mountain into a black abyss. The basin was sucked dry.'

GONZALES: Author Dennis Powers stands near Crescent City's Battery Point Lighthouse reading an account from the unsuspecting lighthouse keeper Peggy Coons. In his recent book, "The Raging Sea," Powers describes a series of huge waves, most likely four, with the last being the deadliest.

Mr. POWERS: The ocean withdraws, comes barreling in 25 feet high in the fourth large deadly wave and goes inland two miles. At this time, you have tanks exploding, you have 300 buildings and businesses destroyed. You have a third of the community homeless.

GONZALES: The fourth wave washes in tons of sea debris, uproots trees and rips asphalt off the streets. Houses tear away from their foundations. Cars, trucks and giant logs ram through walls of downtown buildings, but even in the light of a full moon, authorities don't immediately see the full extent of the damage. At first, civil defense director Bill Parker tells the assistant to the governor there's been only minor flooding, but the disaster isn't revealed until just before dawn.

Mr. BILL PARKER (Director, Civil Defense): So I call him up about 5 in the morning and I said, `I want to change that,' and I said, `Basically, Crescent City is gone.' And he said, `What?'

GONZALES: Parker isn't the only one faked out by the first waves. Among the shop owners who returned to the shore before the fourth wave hits is 27-year-old Gary Clawson. He and his father own a small tavern called the Longbranch. That night, Gary, his parents, his fiancee and two employees return to the tavern to retrieve the cash box and lock up just in case there's more flooding. Clawson recalls it was his father's 54th birthday.

Mr. GARY CLAWSON: My dad, I'll never forget. He jumped up on the bar and drew himself a beer and he says, `Well, happy birthday to me.' He says, `Let it come.'

GONZALES: But no one knew what was about to come. With an eerie hissing, the brackish waters rise suddenly. Clawson sees his brand-new white Pontiac Grand Prix lift up and then crash down upon his father's Dodge Dart. Dark water rushes in through the front door. Clawson yells for everyone to climb up on the bar.

Mr. CLAWSON: And about that time, the west wall of the building caved in and it just kind of crumpled in the middle and it took it right off the foundation. We went back probably 250 feet or so and the building hung up in the trees that were in the back.

GONZALES: The tavern is bobbing like a cork in the ocean. Clawson tells everyone to get on the roof, but gasoline from a nearby storage plant is spreading in the water. The danger of a fire means the roof isn't safe; plus, Clawson's mother can't swim. By now they're a party of eight and a neighbor, Mac McGuire, suggests they swim out to find his small boat. Clawson agrees and they jump into the icy water.

Mr. CLAWSON: And we made our way through floating mobile homes and motor homes and propane tanks and stuff, and when I actually could get my foot down on something, I was right in the middle of Highway 101. It was just right up to my chin.

GONZALES: They soon find the boat and Clawson rows by himself over to the tavern rooftop to pick up his group.

Mr. CLAWSON: And I was kind of trying to cut jokes and tell my mom and dad, you know, that everything's going to be fine and whatnot. Two more rows and we'd have been on dry land but the water started receding.

GONZALES: Tsunami waves can recede just as fast as they rush in. That's what happened in Crescent City that night. The boat is spun sideways and starts heading for a tunnel under a four-lane highway. At the end of the tunnel is an iron grate that's already catching debris, cars, logs and refrigerators. The boat flips and Clawson is horrified to see his parents and fiancee thrashing in the water just ahead of him before they hit the grate. Within seconds, he hits it, too.

Mr. CLAWSON: I remember being just smashed just flat up against all of the debris and then I knew that I was drowning and I was saying to myself, `Oh, my gosh, I can't believe it.' So I took one chance and I knew I couldn't go up.

GONZALES: Clawson pushes down, hits bottom and the pressure forces him through two of the steel pilings. His father, mother, fiancee and two employees don't make it. Six other people died in Crescent City that night, including two small children. Forty-one years later, memories of the tsunami may have dimmed but not for former county civil defense director Bill Parker.

Mr. PARKER: What really worries me, bothers me is that I think there's a lack of awareness up and down our entire coast up through Oregon and Washington. I don't think that coastal cities up there have the least idea of what they're up against.

GONZALES: Parker's worry is shared by Troy Nicolini of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We're standing in the gray rain near the Battery Point Lighthouse. Nicolini points out to the ocean where a 700-mile fault line called the Cascadia Subduction Zone begins off the Northern California coast. Nicolini says it's just a matter of time before that fault triggers a tsunami.

Mr. TROY NICOLINI (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): In fact, historically, there's lot of evidence for very large tsunamis hitting this part of the coast. It's definitely going to come.

GONZALES: And, Nicolini says, understanding how tsunamis happen is key to surviving one.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, Richard reports on the most recent tsunami warning for the Pacific Coast. Although it was a false alarm, isolated coastal communities like Crescent City, California, wonder if they can expect any help at all.

And you can read an eyewitness account of the tsunami and get a look at Crescent City after the disaster at npr.org.

This is NPR News.

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