CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — When Antonio Lawton heard the sirens blare March 11, he realized that something wasn't right. Crescent City tests its tsunami warning system on the first Tuesday of the month. This was a Friday.
"Every first Tuesday of every month at 10 in the morning, the sirens go off. It's just a test," said Mr. Lawton, a commercial fisherman who has lived here for 27 years. "I said, 'Well, this ain't a warning.' "
In a few hours, this remote coastal community of about 7,500 would be slammed by a series of tsunami surges triggered by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that had just devastated Japan. The rushing waves would inundate the beach, sink 16 boats and damage 67 others, dump tons of sand into the harbor and destroy much of the harbor's infrastructure with an estimated repair cost of $25 million.
Just one day shy of three months since the earthquake and resulting tsunami hit Japan, the coastal California town lives with the realization that, given the topography and the stresses inexorably building up in the Earth's crust just offshore, its turn could come at any moment. But if any community in North America can be described as tsunami-ready, it's Crescent City.
Practice, practice, practice
The eight warning sirens are just the beginning. This town prepares for tsunamis like Yellowstone National Park prepares for bears. Residents post maps in every shop and hotel showing which areas of town are safe from tidal surges and which aren't. They conduct drills. They practice evacuations. They are exceptionally well-informed about earthquake activity along the Pacific Rim.
Almost exactly a year before the March 11 tsunami, Del Norte County held what may be the first evacuation drill of an entire community. Crescent City residents were asked to leave their homes and businesses at the sound of the sirens and move to tsunami-safe zones.
"We sounded the sirens, we had the Civil Air Patrol fly overhead, we had emergency alerts go across the TV, the radio," said Cindy Henderson, Del Norte County emergency preparedness manager. "We had over 1,000 people walk out of the evacuation zone voluntarily, which was a really good exercise because when this disaster came up, we are already able to go. We already had the zones mapped up, and everybody knew whether they were in the zone or not."
Their diligence was rewarded in the hours before the March 11 tsunami. By the time the first tidal surge struck at 7:15 a.m., every boat capable of leaving the harbor had done so. Anyone living or working in the inundation zone had been evacuated two hours earlier.
The tsunami sucked so much water out of the harbor that "you could see ducks on the bottom of the harbor walking," said Ms. Henderson.
The ocean blasted back minutes later in the form of 8-foot waves that battered the remaining vessels and swept ominously toward town. One person died in the disaster, but it wasn't in Crescent City. A young man was swept out to sea about 20 miles from town near the Klamath River after he disregarded the advice of others and ventured too close to the tide.
Lori Dengler, chairwoman of the geology and oceanography departments at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., commended Crescent City for its response to the crisis.
"We had a lot of damage, we unfortunately had one person who died, so it wasn't a complete success," said Ms. Dengler, who has written extensively on tsunamis. "But what was a success, particularly for Crescent City, was that the commercial fleet basically survived. ... Not all of the ports and harbors in California had as organized a plan as Crescent City did as far as making sure people were evacuated, people were out of harm's way."
History's painful lesson
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."
Situated in the cross hairs
Those who forecast natural disasters say it's probably a good thing that Crescent City continues to prepare for the worst. The North American Pacific Coast lies on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which at some point is expected to produce an earthquake roughly the magnitude of the March 11 Japan temblor. As with that quake, scientists fear the greatest loss of life could be caused by the resulting tsunami.
The last time the Cascadia fault ruptured was Jan. 26, 1700. Although its impact on the North American coast is unknown, Japanese written records show it created a tsunami that killed several people and damaged harbors in Japan, Ms. Dengler said.
"This is the event I'm really concerned about," Ms. Dengler said. "This is the event [in which] we need to put our energy and preparedness. ... This event requires everyone to understand nature's warning. It requires everyone to understand that they need to take immediate action if they're in harm's way and get out of it."
When will it happen? "Sometime in the next 200, 300 years," she said, "and it could be this afternoon."
Such an event undoubtedly will catch many coastal communities off guard. Crescent City won't be one of them.
"We're always going to have disasters here, just like all over the world. Everybody has their own disasters," Ms. Henderson said. "I think we'll just continue on, we'll keep preparing, and we'll do the best we can to get ready for anything that they throw at us."
c Valerie Richardson reported from Denver.
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