California Tsunami Victims Recall 1964's Killer Waves

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."

Continued on Next Page >>



NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.