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The waves of destruction

Local devastation after the 1964 tsunami. (Photo by Maris Ward courtesy of the Maris Ward family)
It’s 7:36 p.m. in Crescent City on March 27, 1964. The sun is setting on a clear day when the earth trembles about 1,700 miles away.

Anchorage, Alaska, shakes for nearly five minutes. Nine people die as buildings crumble. The 9.2 magnitude earthquake is the second-largest ever recorded.

It is just the beginning.

When the ground snaps in Prince William Sound, a massive amount of water is displaced. The fault rupture is 500 miles long and 150 miles wide. Some areas rise more than 30 feet; others sink as much as 7 feet.

Alaskan earthquake damage. (Photos from U.S. Geological Survey)
In mere minutes, tidal waves hit towns along the Gulf of Alaska. One-hundred-six more die, victims of waves generated by the earthquake and subsequent underwater landslides.

The quake creates a tsunami that radiates from its epicenter at nearly 500 mph. In deep water it’s barely noticeable as it races silently southward.

It bypasses Pebble Beach as it funnels through deeper sections of the underwater landscape. It slows down and ramps up in size as it reaches shallower waters. This bends the first wave, curling it into Crescent City’s harbor on a moonlit night.

It hits from the south at 11:52 p.m., spreading debris over the beaches and along Front Street. Some buildings are flooded. A second wave, smaller than the first, arrives about a half-hour later.

Many people think the worst is over. For an hour this seems true.

But around 1:20 a.m., a third wave arrives. It’s higher than the previous two, and water rises several feet in low-lying areas where some people are already assessing the damage to their homes and businesses.

About 25 minutes later, the final wave is the largest of the four. Water pushes nearly a mile beyond the harbor, almost to the Del Norte County Fairgrounds.

Buildings, cars and other wordly possessions float through the streets as fires from exploding gas tanks and power lines illuminate the night sky.

The water recedes faster than it advanced. People can only watch as their dreams wash into the dark Pacific. But the ocean also holds in its grasp more than can be measured in dollars.

Ten people die in Crescent City, more than anywhere else outside of Alaska. Another man drowns in Klamath. Four more in Oregon. Two other deaths are attributed to the tsunami in Bodega Bay and Long Beach.

Why does this powerful force from Alaska strike hardest here? And how have the four waves that surged through Crescent City in 1964 shaped us today?

Some answers lie beneath the very waves that every day lap onto our shores. And they can help prepare us for tsunamis that will reach into our lives again.

 

THIS IS THE FIRST IN A SIX-PART SERIES

Saturday March 28: Why are we tsunami-prone? How did our familiarity with tidal waves work against us? Read first part here and here .

Coming Tuesday March 31:  A shopkeeper’s tale of three waves on the night disaster strikes.

Coming Wednesday April 1:  A fisherman who makes it out to sea, then watches the fireworks on the shore.

Coming Thursday April 2:  A woman ponders her family’s fate as water rises step by step to their upstairs apartment.

Coming Friday April 3:  Excerpts from other accounts of the night the Pacific Ocean annexes part of Crescent City.

Coming next Saturday April 4:  How would the city and county be different if the ’64 tsunami hadn’t occurred?

 

More stories from the six part series on the '64 Tsunami:

Part 1   Why are we tsunami-prone?    

 Part 1 #2   Tsunami: Not fit for surfing    

Part 2  A night of close calls    
 
Part 3  Riding out the wave   

Part 4  Tsunami at the stairs 

Part 5  In their own words 


To learn more about the '64 Tsunami 

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