Tsunami waves deal a blow to Calif town's economy

By Jeff Barnard

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 12 2011 3:10 p.m. MST

With a tsunami warning in effect for Northern California, Larry Young surfs at Fort Point near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Friday, March 11, 2011. The tsunami warnings came after a 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck Japan. Young said he would surf whether or not the tsunami would affect the waves.

Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — Fishermen who had escaped to sea before the tsunami hit this struggling coastal town landed small loads of crab on Saturday while curious townsfolk came to survey the damage and cleanup crews readied their gear.

"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 boat basin. "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 here at 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.

On Saturday, 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.

Cleanup crews were assembling, but divers could not go into the water and workboats could not maneuver until the tsunami surges were completely done, said Alexia Retallack, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Game.

Meanwhile, a 25-year-old man washed out to sea while taking pictures of the waves at the mouth of the Klamath River was identified by the sheriff as Dustin Weber of Bend, Ore.

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

Early Saturday, cranes began hauling 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 were also at work, assessing structural damage to snapped and tipping pylons, while 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 at it, was completely ripped out during Friday's surges. So far they've found 18 boats "sitting on the bottom" said Ekers, creating an environmental risk from leaking fuel.

In addition, a dock-load of high end rowing boats and kayaks was washed away, and dozens more boats that smashed into each other, or were hit by debris, are going to need major repairs.

Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark said that in addition to evacuating residents in low lying areas, his officers had to do a lot of crowd control Friday as residents 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 Friday emptied schools and jammed roads.

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

He shook his head remembering the moment yesterday 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."

Local officials are keeping a close eye on Japan this weekend. Aftershocks, they know, could cause another tidal surge.

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