If Crescent City residents appear hypervigilant in their response to tsunamis, it may be because they’ve learned the hard way. The unique topography of the crescent-shaped harbor’s floor pulls in tsunami waves like a magnet draws nails. Since a tide gauge was installed in 1933, Crescent City has registered tsunamis 34 times - more than any other community on the Pacific Coast of the United States.
Most of those were barely noticeable, but a handful resulted in significant damage. The community is still haunted by a 1964 event, when Alaska was shaken by a 9.2-magnitude earthquake that sent a massive tsunami toward the Pacific Coast. Crescent City was hit hardest by those surges, which included a 21-foot wave that flooded the town and killed 11 people.
The University of Southern California Tsunami Research Group called the 1964 tsunami “the largest and most destructive recorded tsunami ever to strike the United States Pacific Coast.” The disaster changed Crescent City from a community with a general awareness of its geological and geographical risk to one increasingly on the lookout for danger.
“That’s one thing that ‘64 did for us - we are prepared here,” said fisherman Roy Leake, who moved to Crescent City in 1980. “We learned from that - we got our sirens going off, we evacuate, we have our centers where all the people go.”
A culture of self-reliance
Crescent City also must factor its remote location into its preparations. The town is in perhaps the most isolated corner of California, about 20 miles south of the Oregon border and hours from a major urban area. In the event of a disaster, help might be on the way, but it won’t get there quickly.
“The nearest town with any shopping is an hour and a half away,” Ms. Henderson said. “We are remote, so we’re self-reliant. We have to prepare that we’ll be by ourselves for at least 72 hours after a disaster, if not longer, so that’s what we gear for.”
A tsunami in 2006 caused enough damage to spur a campaign to rebuild the harbor along more disaster-resilient lines. The harbor authority was almost ready to solicit bids on the redesign and rebuilding when the March 11 surge hit, said Richard Young, chief executive officer and harbor master of the Crescent City Harbor District.
This time, he said, the harbor was “devastated.”
“The harbor had suffered some damage in the 2006 tsunami, but this 2011 tsunami just destroyed it,” Mr. Young said. “The damage is very obvious. The docks were broken apart and scattered all over. There were docks on the beaches south of us, docks on the beaches to the north part of the harbor.”
Some help is arriving. The California Legislature is moving through a bill to pick up all costs for the harbor’s reconstruction not covered by the federal government. Typically in such disasters, the federal government pays 75 percent of the costs after such disasters, the state would cover two-thirds of the remainder and local governments would have to foot the bill for the rest.
San Francisco this week said it would send planks from the city’s oldest harbor - scheduled for a $25 million face-lift - to Crescent City for use in the rebuilding effort.
The March 11 tsunami deposited 75,000 cubic yards of sand and debris into the harbor, which now must be dredged. The event also derailed Mr. Young’s plans to take a job at a harbor in Vallejo, Calif.
“I’d actually had a job offer and had tentatively accepted it,” said Mr. Young. “We had just about completed all of the application for the job when the tsunami happened. And for a variety of reasons, I felt like I just couldn’t leave at this time. Somebody needed to be here, and I guess I was it.”
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