A look back at a look back at the destructive tsunami

By Nita Phillips March 28, 2014 04:47 pm

From the pages of the Del Norte Triplicate, March 1984.

The following was written by Karl Cates of the Triplicate on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the 1964 tsunami:

Crescent City sits at the edge of the Pacific Ocean like a frog on the lip of a lily pad — small and exposed, vulnerable to any dangerous whim of the sea.

These may not be the most ideal terms of existence, lolling 24 hours a day next to an often fierce and always unpredictable ocean.

Things could be worse, there are few tornadoes here, for instance, no chance of being picked up and transported unexpectedly via whirlwind to Kansas. Nor are there many troublesome cosmic events such as devastating volcanoes. War, too seems an unlikely hazard. 

But this isn’t the Promised Land, either. The gods have ways of wreaking their wrath upon any landscape, whenever and almost however they choose. No place, not even Del Norte, is special enough to be exempt from that rule.

Twenty years ago today, on March 28, 1964, nature cut loose in the middle of the night and made its powers known to the people of Crescent City. That was the Good Friday night of the big wave, when an earthquake-triggered tsunami rumbled through town, leaving a battered and broken city in its wake. Eleven citizens died in the carnage, but most somehow survived, living to tell and retell their stories.

The event itself surely will outlive every survivor. Forever, or for as long as there is a Crescent City, the story of the Big Wave will persist. Time, after all, turns stories into legends, and legends, as everyone knows, never die.

On the evening of Good Friday, 1964, right around suppertime in Crescent City, something slipped in the Earth’s crust southeast of Anchorage, Alaska.

Atlas had shrugged, sending a shudder over Seward’s Folly, tipping much of civilized Alaska on its end. In the modern frontier city of Anchorage, sidewalks buckled, buildings collapsed, cars were tossed around like toys. Dozens of the state’s coastal villages suffered human loss and incalculable property damage. 

When the tremor had subsided, more than 100 of its citizenry were dead. It was the biggest quake ever recorded in North America, registering 8.5 on the Richter scale.

Few people in Crescent City gave the incident a great deal of immediate thought that evening. Alaska, after all, is so far away that it seems almost like another country. While life there had been jolted, life here went on as usual.

But seismic stations around the world noted the tremor, its intensity and location. Its epicenter was at the edge of the Prince William Sound, an ideal place for the initiation of a tsunami, otherwise known as a tidal wave.

At 9:30 Crescent City time, the Honolulu Observatory, a link in the International Seismic Sea Wave Warning System, issued a tidal wave advisory. 

That advisory included no hint of hysteria. In plain, prosaic English it stated simply that a “severe earthquake” had occurred in Alaska and that the tremor may have touched off a seismic sea-wave. But nobody knew for sure. 

The alarm, sent to every coastal town in the Pacific, said: “This is a tidal wave seismic sea-wave warning … a sea-wave has been generated which is spreading over the Pacific ocean … the intensity cannot, repeat, cannot be predicted. However, this wave could cause great damage. An hour later, the first waves in the tsunami arrived at Crescent City and the town and our lives were forever changed.

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