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Updated 11:00am - Nov 26, 2014

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Special Report: Why weren't we warned?

The Nov. 15 tsunami caused  $1 million in damage to the Crescent City harbor. It was the worst tsunami to strike the city since 1964. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).
The Nov. 15 tsunami caused $1 million in damage to the Crescent City harbor. It was the worst tsunami to strike the city since 1964. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

Crescent City officials received no warning of the Nov. 15 afternoon tsunami because a state Office of Emergency Services staffer thought the city was in Humboldt County, a Daily Triplicate investigation has found.

While no lives were lost, the city harbor suffered $1.1 million in damage as moored boats with people aboard were left floating on the ocean. Crescent City was the only coastal community to sustain major damage from a magnitude 8.1 earthquake that had rocked the Kuril Islands at 3:14 a.m. PST.

It was the worse tsunami to hit Crescent City since the famous Good Friday 1964 waves took 11 lives in Crescent City and one on the Klamath River. During the 1964 event, Del Norte County suffered the only tsunami in modern times to kill people in North America.

Following that tragedy, warning systems and emergency plans were put in place to prevent future loss of life.

But a breakdown in communication during last month's Nov. 15 tsunami left local officials entirely off guard.

Initial reactions to the Nov. 15 tsunami included a diatribe from Jean Martirez, anchorwoman on Fox News 11 in Los Angeles, shaming Crescent City officials for what she claimed was a lack of response to warnings.

The day after the event, state Office of Emergency Services Director Henry Renteria pointed his finger at the National Weather Service.

In fact, it was a state OES dispatcher who placed Crescent City in Humboldt County and neglected to call this county's Emergency Services contact, Allen Winogradov.

The dispatcher's supervisor and others were participating in the Golden Guardian emergency preparedness drill underway Nov. 15-16 in Oakland.

The first bulletin from the West Coast Alaska Tsunami Warning Center came at 3:31 a.m., 16 minutes after the quake. Paul Whitmore, who was on duty at the West Coast Alaska Tsunami Warning Center when the Kuril quake jiggled seismographs, called officials in Washington, Oregon and California, said Lori Dengler, chairwoman of the Humboldt State University Geology Department and local tsunami expert.

In California the first notification to county Office of Emergency Services contact Allen Winogradov came at "about 4:45 a.m."

At about 10:30 a.m., National Weather Service employee Troy Nicolini alerted Crescent City Harbormaster Richard Young and Del Norte County Sheriff Dean Wilson to a warning of "heavy waves possible," anticipated at about 11:30 a.m. in Crescent City Harbor.

"When Troy (Nicolini) called the harbormaster, he (Young) took it seriously," Dengler said. "We were functioning out of official protocol, but we have to take responsibility for ourselves; we know our territory."

A small wave rolled through at 11:38 a.m., measuring 5-6 inches.

That was the first of the series of waves that define "tsunami," a Japanese word coming from "tsu" harbor, and "nami" waves.

At that point the nature of Crescent City Harbor sprang to life.

It's a harbor that holds and amplifies the waves, unlike hardly any others in the Pacific. The phenomenon has been seen before, but is being taken much more seriously following the Nov. 15 event.

Also, as has occurred before, succeeding waves grew in size to the first, peaking at 5.9 meters and breaking two docks in the harbor and damaging a third.

Speaking at the Golden Guardian debriefing in Oakland on Nov. 16, Renteria touted the warning system already in place, however.

"Every protocol that we put in place after the last tsunami has been in operation and has worked properly," he said. "If there was a breakdown, it happened at the National Weather Service, and we are working with them to see where that breakdown occurred, and how we can prevent it from happening again."

But Renteria was later informed by his staff that he didn't have the facts quite right.

Calls to OES placed after the tsunami have not been returned.

"There was never a communication from state OES," Dengler said. "Only Jim Goltz (of the state Office of Emergency Services' Earthquake and Tsunami Program Response and Recovery Division), called in the afternoon, during the event."

Goltz said he called to see whether the harbor had sustained damage.

His call came at about the same time as the large wave.

"I remember hearing Allen (Winogradov) out of breath on his cell phone," Goltz said later.

"The next tsunami event will come down differently," Dengler said. "They all are dressed differently ... if we don't learn from this, people will get hurt."

At a meeting of the Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group Tuesday in Crescent City, Goltz, Nicolini and Bruce W. Turner, a geophysicist on duty at the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, explained where the mistakes occurred.

Palmer, who was on duty that morning with his boss, Whitmore, generated the initial report that followed the Kuril Islands earthquake.

Palmer explained they didn't want to reopen the warning they had already issued and evacuate the entire coast of California.

"Paul (Whitmore) was making the decisions, he called the state OES office but he didn't call the WCMs (the weather service's TsunamiReady program contact points)," Palmer said. "We're in an interim process now, trying to decide what to do if this ever happens again."

Palmer said he closely watched a graph of the first wave that his office had predicted would hit Crescent City Harbor at 11:38 a.m. He saw it, then saw a wave amplification process continue afterward.

"That's when I had my heart attack," he said.

The new realization that the Crescent City harbor takes on a life of its on during a tsunami is prompting various agencies to better understand the "whys" behind the fact.

That way they can better plan for the waves they know will come.

"The next tsunami event will come down differently," Dengler said. "They all are dressed differently ... if we don't learn from this, people will get hurt."

•••••

About this series

On Nov. 16, the day after a tsunami smashed the Crescent City harbor, we had one simple question: Why didn't we receive a warning? We couldn't seem to get a straight answer. So we set reporter Cornelia de Bruin on a hunt: Find out what really happened. From that kernel grew a four-day series of which this is the first part. Upcoming stories include:

•Thursday – If a large tsunami strikes, how soon will help get here?

•Friday – What must we do to prepare for a tsunami?

•Saturday – What changes do government officials plan to ensure we're warned of a tsunami?

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