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March 15, 2011 > Calif. fishing town battered by tsunami yet again

Calif. fishing town battered by tsunami yet again

By Jeff Barnard, Associated Press

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. (AP), Mar 12 - Coastal residents forced to evacuate to higher ground were able to spend Friday night in their own homes, while work crews were assessing damage along the California Coast after a tsunami triggered by the massive earthquake in Japan destroyed boats and harbor facilities and swept at least one person out to sea.

Besides the damage caused in harbor along the coast, Friday's tsunami appeared to have cost at least one life, with a 25-year-old man still missing after being swept out to sea at the mouth of the Klamath River, just south of Crescent City, while taking pictures of the surging water.

After search crews combed an area of more than 250 square miles looking the man, the search was suspended Friday evening, pending new evidence, according to the Coast Guard.

A veteran Coast Guard pilot who flew a search and rescue mission over the roiling ocean for six hours Friday said he had never seen anything like it.

``The water was just rushing off the beaches and off the shore,'' said Lt. Cmdr. Brent Bergan. ``Even from the air, you could actually smell the mud from the ocean floor. As it flowed, you saw the blackness of the water because it was all mixing together.''

``The waters here are very cold and very rough seas, so if you're not in a survival suit or a dry suit, then your chances of survival are very slim,'' said Coast Guard Lt. Todd Vorenkamp.

Many residents in this small California fishing town remember the sight nearly 50 years ago of the ocean roaring into their harbor as a tsunami's massive waves swept away 11 people.

This time, as waves from a magnitude-8.9 temblor in Japan jetted across the Pacific, locals quickly heeded the blaring sirens and deputies dispatched urging them to seek higher ground Friday morning.

The evacuations saved lives, but the surging ocean pummeled the harbor, ripping chunks off the wooden docks and destroying or damaging the two dozen or so boats that didn't make it out in time.

``This is just devastating. I never thought I'd see this again,'' said Ted Scott, a retired mill worker who lived through Crescent City's destruction in 1964 and saw the water pour into the harbor Friday. ``I watched the docks bust apart. It buckled like a graham cracker.''

Vincent Mealue, who also survived the 1964 disaster, didn't take any chances and picked up his grandson on the edge of the evacuation area.

``Anybody who has lived here a long time takes this pretty seriously,'' Mealue said. ``There have been a lot of scares, but it only takes one time to be the real deal.''

The tide began rising shortly after 7:30 a.m. on California's northern coast, and the rest of the state's shoreline quickly began seeing surges after that. By then, all California residents in low-lying areas had been urged to evacuate, and officials closed some schools and coastal roads as a precaution.

Federal seismologists said the 8-foot swells that roared into Crescent City were the largest to hit the United States on Friday - even higher than the 7-foot surges that hit Hawaii.

California's northernmost tip is particularly vulnerable to tsunamis because it lies directly west of the Mendocino Escarpment, a raised ridge on the ocean floor that sits between two ocean plates and directs wave energy at nearby coastal cities.

``Crescent City is a special case. They always get it worse, it doesn't matter where the tsunami comes from,'' said Paul Huang, a seismologist with the federal Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, which monitors the West Coast.

Far to the south, Santa Cruz County residents were also allowed to return to their homes Friday evening, while officials assessed the damage to Santa Cruz Harbor.

Lisa Ekers, director of the Santa Cruz Port District, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel that 30 to 40 boats worth about $5 million were either damaged or destroyed in the tsunami surges. Harbor facilities suffered another $10 million in estimated damages, Ekers said.

Damage was also reported in Berkeley Marina, where Harbormaster Ann Hardinger said at least four surges of water rushed into the harbor, damaging six boat slips, breaking three docks and breaking a wooden piling.

In San Francisco, the mayor's office said the Great Highway, a major coastal roadway closed to traffic early Friday, was open again 4:30 p.m. Friday. Officials also allowed people back on the beaches, but the city advised surfers and swimmers to stay out of the water until around 2 p.m. Saturday.

In 2006, large tsunami waves triggered by a massive earthquake off Japan's coast caused nearly $1 million of damage to Crescent City's harbor, and some residents scrambled to safety last year when Chile's earthquake sparked warnings but ultimately no huge swells.

But the only tsunami to ever take lives in the continental U.S. had been the tsunami of 1964, when a magnitude-9.2 temblor in Alaska's Prince William Sound sent 21-foot waves to the city, which bore the brunt of the impact. Of the 15 killed on the mainland, 11 deaths were in Crescent City.

By 6 p.m. the evacuation was lifted, and U.S. Highway 101, the main coastal route, was reopened to traffic. Del Note County Emergency Services spokesman Joey Young said the boat basin where all the damage was focused remained closed.

Still, for many hours after the tsunami hit, advisories remained in effect for the western U.S. coast alerting people to continued higher than normal tides and strong currents. By early Saturday morning, those advisories had expired for all but parts of California.

Further south, rough waters also knocked some boats out of their moorings and damaged the dock in San Luis Obispo County's Morro Bay.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Del Norte, Humboldt, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties to provide resources to areas damaged by the tsunami.

Associated Press writers Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, Daisy Nguyen and Sue Manning in Los Angeles, and Garance Burke and Louise Chu in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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