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California Tsunami Victims Recall 1964's Killer Waves

Willie Drye
National Geographic News
January 21, 2005
 
The news of the December 26 tsunami had special
resonance for residents of Crescent City, California. Their waterfront
town of about 7,500 was devastated when a tsunami swept in from the
Pacific Ocean early on March 28, 1964. The business district was leveled, and 11 people were killed.

Gary Clawson is still trying to make sense of what happened on that long-ago night. The ferocious waters spared him but killed his parents and his fiancé. The survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami—which killed more than 225,000—will endure the same puzzled agonizing for the rest of their lives, he said.

"I've lived (the 1964 tsunami) two or three times a week since it happened," Clawson said from his current home in Florence, Oregon, just up the coast from Crescent City. "You can't define how it felt, or what you go through when you can't breathe. You have to live that experience to know what it's like."

Clawson said he would never understand why he didn't die. "It probably took me four or five seconds to go through (the tsunami), and it would take me 15 minutes just to tell you everything I thought of while it was happening," he said.

Alaska Cities Devastated

On the afternoon of March 27, 1964, Alaska was shaken by an earthquake even stronger than the recent Indian Ocean quake. Anchorage and other Alaska cities were devastated, and more than a hundred people died. Life magazine reported that the quake unleashed "more than 2,000 times the power of the mightiest nuclear bomb ever detonated and 400 times the total of all nuclear bombs ever exploded."

From its center beneath Prince William Sound, the quake sent a tsunami rippling across the Pacific and down the coasts of Canada and the United States. Crescent City was a sitting duck for these waves, said Dennis Powers, author of The Raging Sea, a book about the 1964 Crescent City tsunami that will be released January 27.

Powers said underwater topography can steer a tsunami toward a particular point along a coast and sometimes increase its power by concentrating its force. Crescent City sits on that kind of shoreline, he said.

"If Crescent City was at a different angle to the ocean, they wouldn't have had that destruction," Powers said. "Crescent City was a magnet for the tsunami."

Bill Parker, who was director of the town's civil defense department in 1964, said officials had been warned that earthquake-generated waves were headed their way. Such warnings were nothing new. Crescent City had had "a lot of watches and evacuations" for tsunamis, Parker said. "They didn't develop into anything," he said.

Still, Parker and others spread the warning. Soon after midnight, the first wave reached Crescent City. It was small and had little effect. But the worst was yet to come.

Clawson was in his family's bar celebrating his father's 54th birthday with his parents, his fiancé, and a few friends when a 21-foot (6.4-meter) wave swept into the harbor. "We were in the tavern when the wall of water came in," he recalled. "It took the building away, probably went back 100 yards [about 100 meters] or so."

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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