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What if the tsunami never came our way?

 A night of trauma can overshadow other setbacks

Highway 101 is still soaked after a tidal wave recedes in 1964 (Photos courtesy Del Norte County Historical Society)
Imagine the city that never was.

In the early hours of March 28, 1964, no tsunami rises from the sea. Eleven people do not die in Del Norte County. Everyone sleeps peacefully through the night while  homes, boats and businesses remain intact.

For the next 45 years, no other catastrophic tidal waves inundate Crescent City, and so its businesses, buildings, streets and parks change more gradually, subject only to the forces of an ever-changing economy.

In this alternate 2009, the city sports a charming downtown centered around a narrower Front Street and a fully paved Second Street. Here, brightly painted Victorian architecture, some of it authentic, houses long-standing family businesses as well as tourist gift shops, museums, galleries and restaurants.


No other city on Highway 101 for 100 miles in either direction can boast of a comparably scenic waterfront that is so highly visible from the highway, and few tourists can resist the urge to make a stop, spend money and tell their friends about Crescent City when they go home.

Is this an exaggerated fantasy? Probably it is. But when tsunami waves flooded the harbor and downtown areas of Crescent City in March 1964, the damage was devastating to its heart and threatened its soul, and dreams of what might have been linger today.

“The tsunami killed that town,” says Steven R. Phipps, a Trinidad resident who narrowly escaped the flood with his grandparents from their Second Street home. “Though (Crescent City) came back, though it did come back, its personality was changed.”

The legacy of the 1964 tsunami is difficult to define, but the general perception among locals seems to be that the tsunami cost the region something it has never entirely regained. In an informal poll taken on The Triplicate Web site, 60 percent of respondents said that Crescent City and Del Norte County haven’t fully recovered from the effects of the 1964 tidal waves.

Economically, the city and county’s best days seem to have preceded 1964. Mining, seafaring, logging and fishing booms all have done their part to bring growth and prosperity to the region, but in the 45 years since the tsunami, the busts have far outweighed the booms.

The last logging mill closed in 1991. Then fishing plummeted. Now, a smaller population of county residents rely on a state prison and tourism to generate income, but these industries haven’t produced the level of economic vitality that lumber and fish once brought to the area.

Blight, high unemployment and homelessness — hallmarks of a weak economy — have become chronic problems in Del Norte County that demand explanation, and it’s fair to ask how much of a role the 1964 tsunami played in the county’s contemporary struggles.

And so, on the final day of The Triplicate’s six-part series about the 45th anniversary of the tidal waves, we ask how that catastrophe changed Crescent City and Del Norte County. What would be different today if there had been no destructive waves on March 28, 1964? Was it the tsunami we haven’t recovered from, or was it the decline of fishing and logging? And if we haven’t fully recovered, what does full recovery look like?

 

Second Avenue years before the tsunami. (Photos courtesy Del Norte County Historical Society)

FOND MEMORIES OF A CHARMING ‘MAIN STREET’

On land, nearly 300 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed in Crescent City that night, and total losses were estimated at approximately $40 million in 1964 dollars.

In the harbor, Citizen’s Dock was a twisted wreck. Boats, cars and logs were strewn across the harbor floor. Other boats and ships were jammed up against each other at the harbor’s edges, and some were wedged between docks and pilings. Some were washed out to sea while others were deposited inland.

For weeks after the flooding, massive bonfires on the beach consumed the wreckage of hundreds of condemned structures, and by June, the heart of the city’s business district on Front and Second streets had been largely gutted.

Before the flooding, Second Street had been Crescent City’s main boulevard, densely packed with most of the town’s retail stores and many of its restaurants.

“As a kid, when you walked down it (Second Street), you’d say ‘Hi’ to everybody and everybody knew you,” says Jerry Cochran, who grew up in Crescent City.

 A block over, hotels and souvenir shops had been prevalent along Front Street, which bordered the beach and had unobstructed views of the harbor.

“We had an old-pioneer type of town with curio shops, museums, and even places where you could tie up a horse,” remembered former mayor Bill Peepe in “The Raging Sea,” by Dennis M. Powers.


‘SENSE OF PLACE’ LOST IN REBUILDING

In 2009, downtown Crescent City is a much quieter place than either its fantasy alter ego or its genuine, pre-tsunami past.

Too quiet, in fact. Like a metaphor for urban decay in America, what was once Crescent City’s main drag is now a crumbling and largely deserted mall.

“We ended up with these nondescript, diluted, kind of modernist, simple stucco boxes and flat roofs — Tsunami Landing — that are not people-friendly and in complete contrast to what was there before,” says architect and City Councilman Charles Slert.

It’s not hard to see what city leaders were going for in the aftermath of the tsunami — pedestrian shopping centers were gaining popularity nationwide in the 1960s. But typically they were built on the edges of cities and towns. The design for Tsunami Landing, with its covered walkways and large parking lots, must have seemed like a good way to keep the downtown era relevant.

One person who still has nice things to say about Tsunami Landing is Peepe, Crescent City’s beloved honorary “Mayor for Life” who now lives in retirement with his wife in Gasquet. He recently spoke with The Triplicate  about the city’s rebuilding.

“I still think those covered walkways are good,” he said. “We put those up because of the tremendous rains that we have.”

Although Peepe served on many of the boards and committees responsible for planning the rebuilding, his business and day-to-day mayoral duties prevented him from spearheading the planning, which was instead led by local attorney Jim Hooper. While there was some dissent, a thoroughly modern design plan prevailed.

Peepe himself says there is nothing he wishes he had done differently, but that doesn’t mean the loss of the old downtown wasn’t tragic.

“The tidal wave was a bad thing,” he said in “The Raging Sea.” “People left the area rather than rebuilding. The city lost some of it 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-story modern-looking buildings. It was a bad thing.”

The modern replacement isn’t terrible, Peepe told The Triplicate, it just can’t compare with what was there originally — what’s lost is lost.

Slert is not so sure.

“I think they could have rebuilt the town that was there, but there was an urgency to do a quick fix, and in the process they kind of forgot how to make a sense of place or community that I think existed before,” he said.

Despite the dedicated and well-intentioned efforts to quickly rebuild the downtown, then, something was permanently lost, something that is easy to presume would have remained if there had been no tsunami. But such a presumption ignores the history of the county — there would be other kinds of disasters — independent of the tsunami — that would do damage to the county, city and downtown.


WAVES DIDN’T DESTROY FISHING AND LOGGING

No matter what scenario is imagined for the downtown’s past 45 years, its success would have been unavoidably tied to the economic health of the region overall — and times have been tough for Del Norte County.

The tsunami posed only a momentary setback to port-related industries like fishing. Citizen’s Dock was rebuilt within 2 1/2 months of the tsunami, due in part to a $12.5 million federal grant that also paid for other harbor repairs, such as clearing out debris.

Likewise, the tsunami’s impact on logging was fairly minimal. Several lumber mills were flooded, and stockpiles of lumber, logs and equipment were scattered all over the city and harbor, but the yard quickly cleaned up and rebuilt as local demand for lumber surged in the tsunami’s aftermath.

But in the long term, both industries, fishing and logging, suffered declines that drove up unemployment  and prompted efforts to bring a state prison to the county to offset job losses.

Cochran was county assessor from 1970 to 2006, and in 1983 he was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to head up a committee to bring a state prison to the county.

The board was motivated by an economic study Cochran helped prepare that was controversially bleak — at a time when 6 billion board feet of timber in the county were being felled at a rate of 200–250 million a year, the report predicted it would run out by 1990.

“Lumber companies got mad at me, but the report missed it by just one year,” Cochran said. “In the ’60s and ’70s, the timber industry represented about 65 percent of the value in the county. When you lose 65 percent, you’ve got a problem. A big problem.”

Pelican Bay State Prison opened in 1989 and perhaps saved the county’s population from shrinking to a miniscule fraction of its former size, but it alone cannot come close to repairing the damage done by the logging bust, Cochran acknowledged.

“We replaced 1,500 jobs from the loss of 2,500 — a lot of them moved to Humboldt County, but we got some of them back,” he said. “The only bad part about that is there are probably 350-400 who are employed at the prison who live in Oregon.”

What becomes clear from a look at the county’s economic history in the last 45 years is that the economic busts were in their own way much more destructive to the county’s well being than the ’64 tsunami. “Comeback Town, U.S.A.” came back — only to be batted back down by economic tsunamis that destroyed one of the county’s staple industries and damaged another.


‘CHANGE IS INEVITABLE FOR ANY COASTAL TOWN’

That economic destruction wouldn’t have spared the downtown even if there had been no ‘64 tidal wave. The personality of the town, its cohesiveness, would have changed with the times anyway, said Bob Ames, who has had several businesses downtown and reopened his main store two months after the tsunami.

“Did the town lose some of its character? Of course,” Ames said. “But of course change is inevitable for any coastal town where the highway has bypassed the downtown.”

Northbound traffic on Highway 101 used to veer off L Street onto 2nd Street and run down to H Street, turn north and go up to Ninth Street before returning to L, Ames recalled.

“All those businesses that were dependent on people traveling were suddenly cut off when they put the highway through L and M streets.”

Councilman Slert points out that this phenomenon is common in towns and cities across America.

“Over time, downtown is decaying as suburbia continues to evolve and people migrate out. To some degree, that’s happened here. We seem to have ended up with a series of community islands: the harbor, the 101 service corridor, downtown, or the remnants of it.”

Ames eventually closed all of his downtown businesses and opened a new one on Northcrest Drive, but he was forced to close the new store in the early 1980s for reasons that affected every business in the county — including downtown.

“Mills had shut down because of high interest rates. We were all timber-related industries, and our business couldn’t handle it.”

In 2009, the nation is gripped in its its worst recession since the early ’80s, and another round of shrinkage appears to be afflicting downtown. In the past several months, two long-standing businesses were closed and left empty when their owners were ready to retire. One of them, The Medicine Shoppe pharmacy, sold its accounts to a pharmacy on the highway. The other, Glen’s Bakery and Restaurant, failed to find to a buyer.

Neither of these businesses was in its current location before the tsunami — Glen’s relocated and The Medicine Shoppe opened later — which goes to show that the downtown’s problems are not solely the tsunami’s legacy: Suburbanization, industry busts and recessions are all pressures that would have existed anyway.


TIME TO QUIT THINKING OF FULL RECOVERY

Forty-five years later, perhaps it’s time to stop thinking of the tsunami as a disaster that still holds Del Norte County down. Although some of the city’s identity and character may have been lost with the damage to downtown Crescent City, most of the suffering the county endures now has other causes.

The notion of a full recovery is a chimera that distracts the community from what really matters: building a new future and a 21st Century identity for Del Norte County that, at least in the near term, may not be as populous or prosperous as it once was.

Slert has plenty of ambitious ideas for redesigning downtown to be a more vibrant place, but these ideas require money the region doesn’t currently have. In the coming years, however, perhaps new resources will bring some wealth back to the county, and perhaps old ones will be restored.

Only time will tell.

 

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