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Tsunami Surge Deals Blow to Struggling Calif. Town

AP
Saturday, 12 Mar 2011 | 7:04 PM ET

Fishermen who had escaped to sea before the tsunami hit this struggling coastal town landed small loads of crab on Saturday, while crews surveyed damage and a family combed the beach for any sign of a man who was swept away a day ago as he photographed the waves.

Fishing boats crash into one another as tsunami surges from Japan earthquake slam into the harbor, Crescent City, California.
AP
Fishing boats crash into one another as tsunami surges from Japan earthquake slam into the harbor, Crescent City, California.

"This harbor is the lifeblood of our community and the soul of our community," said Del Norte County Sheriff Dean Wilson as he looked across what was left of the Crescent City boat basin, which last year saw landings of crab and fish worth $12.5 million. "The fishing industry is the identity and soul of this community, besides tourism.

"It's going to be hard to recover here."

A series of powerful surges generated by the devastating earthquake in Japan arrived about 7:30 a.m. Friday and pounded the harbor through the day and night. Waves funneled into the sheltered docks created furious currents that heaved up docks, broke loose boats, and sent them careening around like billiard balls.

Eight are believed sunk, and one damaged. An unmanned sailboat sucked out of the harbor ran aground on the coast.

Among the losses was Dustin Weber of Bend, Ore., who was swept away Friday as he and two friends watched the waves. His father, Jon Weber, and his family searched the beach Saturday about 20 miles to the south, in the community of Klamath.

"He just didn't respect the ocean and didn't understand the tsunami," Weber said of his son. "The (first surge) hit about 7:30. It was the second wave that hit at 9:30 that got him."

The Coast Guard has suspended the search for the 25-year-old man, whose friends had tried to save him when the surge came.

Meanwhile, crews geared up for the enormous task of assessing and fixing the damage to the city's port, where a sheen of oil floated on the water in the basin. Seagulls feasted on mussels exposed by upended docks, and sea lions barked. About 80 percent of the docks that once sheltered 140 boats were gone.

Divers could not go into the water and workboats could not maneuver until the tsunami surges were completely over, said Alexia Retallack, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Game. Local officials were keeping a close eye on Japan through the weekend, knowing that aftershocks could cause another tidal surge.

About 350 miles south in Santa Cruz, the only other California harbor hard-hit by the waves, the commercial fishing industry was minimally affected. Most of the 850 boats that dock in Santa Cruz were pleasure boats, including 60 which are lived in full time.

Cranes hauled up sunken boats — some possibly salvageable, others snapped into pieces — while crews in life jackets and rubber boots waded near the shore, yanking chunks of broken docks, floating hunks of foam and other trash from the water.

Divers with scuba tanks assessed structural damage to snapped and tipping pylons, and a Coast Guard helicopter hovered above, searching for oil sheens and other contamination.

Port Director Lisa Ekers said the tsunami caused at least $17.1 million in damage to the harbor, and another $4 million to private boats. Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency declaration for the harbor, which can expedite funding for repairs.

One dock, with close to 40 boats, was ripped out during the surges. So far, they had found 18 vessels "sitting on the bottom," creating an environmental risk from leaking fuel, Ekers said.

A dock-load of high end rowing boats and kayaks also was washed away, and dozens more boats that smashed into each other or were hit by debris, would need major repairs.

Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark said that in addition to evacuating residents in low-lying areas, his officers had to do crowd control as curious townspeople gathered along the harbor to watch boats tossed around in the nine foot swells.

"A tsunami watch doesn't mean go watch the tsunami," he said.

Paul Horvat, the county's Emergency Services Manager, said his agency was planning community meetings for the city of Watsonville, where a panicked evacuation emptied schools and jammed roads Friday.

On a boat ride through the harbor, Assistant Harbormaster Larry White pointed to buckled piers, snapped masts and hulls of flipped boats bobbing in the brown, pungent water, which rose and fell in usually strong swells generated in Japan.

He shook his head, remembering the moment when the tsunami first sucked the water out of the harbor out to sea — a sudden 9-foot drop.

"It was like the earth opening up," he said. "It was incredible."

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