After the 50th anniversary, reconstruction debate lives on
But the debate lives on regarding how well Crescent City has recovered from the catastrophic tsunami of March 27–28, 1964.
Some say we remain municipally handicapped by the damage done by the rampaging ocean. Others say the unrelated loss of much of the logging and fishing industries struck bigger blows. On today’s Opinion page, a Crescent City newcomer drawn by the area’s natural beauty writes that it’s time to focus on our attributes and ignore our tsunami-soaked past.
In a triplicate.com survey that wrapped up Friday, 321 respondents (58.9 percent) said the city has fully recovered, and any current ills are due to issues other than the 1964 tsunami. But 224 respondents (41.1 percent) said the city has never fully recovered from the 1964 tsunami, and some of its current ills can still be tied to the disaster.
Even longtime residents disagree on the effects of the tsunami itself and the recovery efforts.
Coming home to change
Jerry Cochran knew Crescent City had changed, but he wasn’t prepared for how much.
It was November 1964, and Cochran, who was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Alabama when the tsunami swept through his hometown, returned to a completely different place.
“I knew their intention was to modernize the town. The thing I didn’t realize is how much modernization was going on,” he recalled in a recent interview. “All the old historic buildings built in the 1800s, they’re all gone. Second Street is gone. It was very disappointing when I came home. It was just too bad.”
Pre-tsunami Crescent City looked a lot like Ferndale with its wooden sidewalks and Victorian-era buildings, Cochran said. Second Street was the town’s main drag, part of a loop Cochran, his younger brother Bob and other youngsters would make when they cruised around town.
That was all gone, eventually to be replaced by the box-like buildings that were the architectural style of the ’60s.
Bob Cochran, Jerry’s brother, was a teenager when the tsunami hit. He said it took his family two to three weeks to reopen the Frontier Chuckwagon Bar and Grill. Located on the ocean side of Highway 101 South where the Apple Peddler sits now, water had poured through the restaurant after trees broke a hole through the back wall.
Clearing the streets
In his book, “The Raging Sea,” Dennis M. Powers wrote that major streets were cleared of debris within two weeks of the tsunami, and 56 buildings were either demolished or slated for demolition.
The city, county and harbor quickly formed the Tri-Agency Economic Development Authority and obtained federal urban renewal dollars to help rebuild the town. Plans included building a mall on Second Street with a covered walkway and no overhead utilities.
This mall would become Tsunami Landing, which stood until just three years ago, when the city removed what had become dilapidated and structurally unsound.
For Crescent City residents and business owners, the Chamber of Commerce helped them connect with the Small Business Administration and other local banks and accountants, according to Powers.
“When the emergency SBA office closed in June, disaster loan applications totaling over $1 million had been submitted, and about one-half of those requests were approved,” Powers wrote. “Thirty small businesses (and two home-office businesses) qualified to receive loans under this program. Even so, most businesses and individuals didn’t apply.”
Rebuilding, then relocating
A Small Business Administration low-interest loan helped Bob Ames Jr. and his parents rebuild and reopen their appliance business about 60 days after the tsunami. Ames and his parents, Bob Sr. and Fern Ames, also received a lot of help from community contributions and General Electric, whose appliances their store at Second and L streets sold.
In addition to electrical appliances, the Bob Ames Company sold seasonal merchandise, sporting goods and was an electrical contracting business.
On the night of March 27, Ames and his parents were busy cleaning up after the second surge, moving items to higher ground, when the third and fourth waves crashed through town. Ames said he and his family escaped the rising water by climbing to a second floor used for storing layaway items.
“If we stayed on the ground floor we would have been crushed,” he said.
After cleaning up and rebuilding, the Ames family split the store in two, selling furniture and electronics at Third and I streets in 1970. They kept selling seasonal merchandise and appliances at the original store, Ames said. In 1978, Ames would build a new structure at Northcrest Drive and Harding Avenue.
Getting back on the water
Norman “Buzzie” Briggs used insurance money to patch up his boat, the Frontier, which sank in the tsunami. Briggs, whose father and brother helped build Citizen’s Dock in 1950, had been struggling to pay for his boat, having just finished some bad crab seasons from 1960 to 1962.
On the night of the tsunami, Briggs and a friend sped down Elk Valley Road, skirting the flooded downtown area, and arrived at the dock at about midnight. The Coast Guard cutter stationed at the harbor was getting ready to head for deeper waters, Briggs said, and the third wave was barreling in.
Briggs said they barely made it back to his house at McNamara Avenue and Glenn Street.
“We could hear the buildings moving around from a mile away,” he said, referring to the downtown area. “We could hear the grinding.”
At daylight, Briggs again skirted the devastated downtown and arrived at the harbor via Elk Valley and Howland Hill roads to see his mast sticking out of the water. Two days later, he towed his boat to the beach and pumped it out before hauling it to Eureka for repairs.
“It took every cent I had in insurance,” Briggs said. “And then we started over again. I ended up with a better boat than what I bought.”
Briggs said he was able to participate in the next crab season.
Different views looking back
Fifty years later, Briggs and the Cochrans mourn the loss of the old buildings that were along Second Street.
“They could have saved the town,” Briggs said. “They tore down perfectly good buildings.”
Ames, however, said the Tri-Agency’s involvement was necessary. Instead of comparing pre-tsunami Crescent City to Ferndale, Ames, who had spent some time in the Navy, said the town reminded him a lot of Nome, Alaska, which in the 1940s was “as frontier as you could get.”
The town needed to be modernized, he said.
“The tsunami might have done us a minor favor by getting rid of old obsolete buildings,” Ames said.
When Powers wrote his book about 10 years ago, he interviewed some key figures in the recovery effort who have since died.
Attorney Jim Hooper oversaw the establishment of the redevelopment agency and other reconstruction efforts. Echoing what Ames still says today, Hooper argued in the book that old structures that were cleared away post-tsunami were rickety and had to be rebuilt or replaced, even if their owners felt otherwise.
“We needed to rebuild and we were given that opportunity,” Hooper said. “We constructed projects that would have otherwise never been started. The city built two seafood processing plants, a modern boat repair facility, small boat basin, community cultural and convention center, completely rebuilt our aging water and sewer systems, and improved upon other public facilities.
But Bill Peepe, mayor at the time of the tsunami, put it this way in the book:
“People left the area rather than rebuilding. The city lost some of its charm when its rustic look of downtown bars, restaurants, and tourist places were replaced by a municipal parking lot, the tsunami memorial, and one-and two-store modern-looking buildings … the people never rebuilt in numbers of places. Even now some 40 years later, there are jagged, saw-toothed parts of our city that still have vacant lots where buildings used to be.”
In the days following the 1964 tsunami, even some of the still-standing buildings were cleared away to make room for downtown redevelopment.
Photo courtesy of the Del Norte County Historical Society