California Tsunami Victims Recall 1964's Killer Waves

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Sucked Into a Culvert

Clawson managed to get to a rowboat and get survivors into it. But when the deadly wave receded, it sucked the occupants into a large culvert. Somehow, Clawson survived, but his parents and fiancé didn't.

Dawn's light revealed stupefying destruction. Crescent City's business district was gone, and fuel tanks near the harbor were afire. Automobiles, debris, and the ruins of buildings were piled in seaweed-covered heaps. "When daylight came, we were just dumbfounded," Parker said. "We couldn't believe what we were seeing.

Crescent City is the only town in the continental United States where people have been killed by a tsunami. Reminders of the tragedy are abundant in the town, and residents take tsunami warnings very seriously.

Tom Sokowloski, a retired physicist who worked at federal tsunami warning centers in Alaska and Hawaii, said coastal residents everywhere would be wise to follow Crescent City's example, because it could happen again.

"It behooves you to learn how to protect yourself," Sokowloski said. "No warning center can help you if you're right next to the source (of the tsunami)."

The only way to escape a tsunami is to head to higher ground the moment you hear the warning, Sokowloski said.

And the threat of a tsunami isn't limited to the Pacific coast. Some scientists are concerned that a region of instability beneath the Caribbean Sea could cause a deadly tsunami along the East Coast from Miami to Washington, D.C.

There's also the possibility that the eruption of an obscure volcano in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa could send giant tsunami waves surging ashore from New York to Florida, as well as southern Britain.

A slab of rock about 35 miles (56 kilometers) long on the western slope of the volcano Cumbre Vieja is cracking. Scientists think an eruption could shear the slab away from the mountain, drop it into the sea, and send gigantic waves rolling across the Atlantic Ocean. About nine hours later, these waves—some of them 80 feet (24 meters) high—could strike the U.S. East Coast.

The volcano's most recent eruptions were in 1949 and 1971. Some scientists say the next eruption could cause the cataclysmic tsunami, while others say such an event isn't likely for hundreds of years, if at all.

Sokolowski thinks coastal residents everywhere need to be clearly warned of the dangers of tsunamis. And the warnings need to be systematic and continual to make sure new residents are aware of the danger, he said.

"One of the most effective things in a tsunami warning system is the education of the public to do what they have to do," he said. "It's really important for experts to come in again and again and to go into the schools. Otherwise, the danger is forgotten."

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.

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