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1964 Tsunami Anniversary: Tracing the path of the waves

 

Eighth-grade students depart for tsunami history walking tours on Wednesday after posing in front of a preliminary version of a 21-foot representation of the 1964 tsunami to be erected on the side of the Cultural Center.  Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Eighth-grade students depart for tsunami history walking tours on Wednesday after posing in front of a preliminary version of a 21-foot representation of the 1964 tsunami to be erected on the side of the Cultural Center. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
 Del Norte schools teach students potentially life-saving lessons about area’s history

Todd Flackas, Chris Jones-Koczera and 14 students from Crescent Elk Middle School gazed at a black-and-white version of Crescent City’s main drag.

Flackas had stopped his tour group of eighth-graders in front of the mural on the side of Del Norte Office Supply on Wednesday. In the image of a pre-tsunami Second Street, old cars were parked alongside tall wooden buildings that housed department stores, restaurants and soda fountains. Flackas told his group that the photo had been taken not far from where they were.

 

“The tsunami destroyed Crescent City,” he said, noting the line on the mural that marked how high the water got on the morning of March 28, 1964. “That’s head high or even over your heads.”

The first day of Tsunami Safe Week kicked off with volunteers leading 400 Del Norte County eighth graders on a 90-minute guided walking tour through the downtown area. They stopped at eight different kiosks along the way and told stories about those who survived and those who lost their lives.

Volunteers told how the KPLY radio station kept people up to date on the situation despite telephone lines being cut. They relayed the story of then-teenager Guy Ames and his friends surviving the massive fourth surge by scrambling onto the roof of a van. 

Standing on the Elk Creek bridge, Flackas told the students about the deaths of Bill and Gay Clawson, Nita Edwards and Joanie Fields, who got caught in a funnel of water underneath the bridge as the waters receded.

The students also learned the difference between a near-source tsunami and a distant-source tsunami, how to recognize the signs of an incoming tsunami and how and where to evacuate.  

A group of students pass a tetrapod on their walking tour.  Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
A group of students pass a tetrapod on their walking tour. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson

“I knew there were a few casualties, but I didn’t know how many — 11 people,” said Crescent Elk eighth grader Zoe Critz. “It’s easy to drill this information into kids so it’ll be ingrained in their memory and they can remember it later on.”

Students are learning even  more in the classroom. Crescent Elk teachers Sean Smith and Gale West spent roughly two weeks developing curriculum around the 1964 tsunami and other tsunamis that could be used at the middle school and high school levels. 

Smith, who teaches history and Spanish, said he structured his curriculum around the stories of survivors Bob Ames Jr., who owned an appliance store at Second and L streets, and Peggy Koons, who was the keeper at Battery Point Lighthouse.

He also has his students read a 1926 Tolowa narrative of a tsunami that occurred at a village near the mouth of the Chetco River. Students also read a 1902 Yurok narrative of a tsunami near Orick, he said. 

“Maps show the locations and the students recognize where the people evacuated to,” Smith said, adding that every component of tsunami safety, including recognizing the hazards and evacuating to higher ground, is in each narrative. “Peggy (said) she wanted to run up into the tower. She remembers seeing the entire bay empty.”

Smith said his goal is to have the curriculum available for teachers annually.

West, who teaches science, said she partnered with the local U.S. Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Mark Tatara, who commands the Coast Guard cutter Dorado, to create a lesson that shows the force and velocity of the ’64 tsunami. 

“We came up with a nice lesson on calculating the force of the water on the tetrapod,” she said, referring to the four-pronged concrete object at Front and N streets.  

Students gather in the Cultural Center before the tours.  Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Students gather in the Cultural Center before the tours. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
 The force of the 1964 tsunami pushed the two-ton tetrapod off its pedestal, Smith said. He said students could use the approximate length of time of the third tsunami surge to calculate the wave’s speed and how much force it applied.

At the lower grades, kindergarten through third, the Del Norte County Unified School District sent a DVD from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on what to do during a tsunami.

“A lot of our educational pieces tie into the work that’s being done locally with disaster preparedness and ‘know your zone,’” said District Superintendent Don Olson. “Upper grades, we gave them access to ‘Dark Disaster,’ the movie that was made shortly after 1964.”

The public can take the same walking tour of the 1964 tsunami area on Saturday. Volunteers will be on hand at each stop to explain the significance of the site. Walkers can also obtain information at each stop by scanning on-site codes with Internet-accessible smart phones.

The tour will begin and end at the Crescent City Cultural Center on Front Street in the middle of the evacuation zone.

For more information about Tsunami Safe Week, visit preparedelnorte.com.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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