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Tsunami surge deals blow to struggling Calif. town

Published: Saturday, March 12 2011 6:51 p.m. MST

Seagulls feast on mussels and sea worms exposed by Friday's tsunami that overturned docks, Saturday, March 12, 2011, in the Crescent City, Calif., boat basin. Dozens of boats were damaged, an estimated eight sank, and most of the docks were destroyed.  (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press) Seagulls feast on mussels and sea worms exposed by Friday's tsunami that overturned docks, Saturday, March 12, 2011, in the Crescent City, Calif., boat basin. Dozens of boats were damaged, an estimated eight sank, and most of the docks were destroyed. (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press)

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 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.

"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."

The region has never recovered from the loss of the timber industry in the 1980s and 1990s, and downturns in salmon fishing, said Wilson, who fished on his father's boats as a young man.

"It's going to be hard to recover here," he said.

Kevin Wilson, manager of Nor-Cal Seafood, Inc., holds up a pair of Dungeness crabs, landed by local fishermen, Saturday, March 12, 2011, at Crescent City, Calif. As their boat basin was pounded by surges from a tsunami, fishermen struggled to find some normalcy amid the devastation, and some landed small catches of crab.  (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press) Kevin Wilson, manager of Nor-Cal Seafood, Inc., holds up a pair of Dungeness crabs, landed by local fishermen, Saturday, March 12, 2011, at Crescent City, Calif. As their boat basin was pounded by surges from a tsunami, fishermen struggled to find some normalcy amid the devastation, and some landed small catches of crab. (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press)

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. Eight boats were believed sunk and dozens of others damaged; an unmanned sailboat sucked out of the harbor ran aground on the coast.

About 20 miles south, the family of a 25-year-old Oregon man combed the beach looking for signs of him. Authorities say Dustin Weber was swept away as he and two friends photographed the waves.

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

Back north in Crescent City, crews geared up for the enormous task of assessing and fixing the damage to the port, where a sheen of oil floated in the basin. Seagulls feasted on mussels exposed by upended docks. About 80 percent of the docks that once sheltered 140 boats were gone.

Fishermen haul a load of crab up a ramp at the boat basin in Crescent City, Calif., on Saturday, March 12, 2011. After a tsunami practically destroyed dock facilities in this struggling port, fishermen landed small catches of crab in a show of normalcy amid the devastation.  (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press) Fishermen haul a load of crab up a ramp at the boat basin in Crescent City, Calif., on Saturday, March 12, 2011. After a tsunami practically destroyed dock facilities in this struggling port, fishermen landed small catches of crab in a show of normalcy amid the devastation. (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press)

"Our port is struggling," said Kevin Wilson, manager of Nor-Cal Seafood Inc. "Since the last tsunami in '06, they secured the funds to fix it, and this took away all the stuff they were gonna build off."

Crab fisherman Lee Wilson returned to find his boat, the Gold Coast, mostly unscathed. It has survived its second tsunami — the first, a 1964 swarm that killed 11 in the city, had pushed it up on the rocks of the break wall.

Despite the severity of the damage that has drawn curious onlookers to survey the port even in the rain, Kevin Wilson has returned to business. He bought crab from fishermen who decided to work after leaving in the early Friday darkness to escape the waves.

"We've been down here in hurricane-force winds before, and we'll keep working," he said.

For the crews tasked with repairs, it would be a longer wait. Divers could not go into the water and workboats could not maneuver until the tsunami surges end, 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, in case aftershocks cause another tidal surge.

Sunken and damaged boats litter the boat basin at Crescent City, Calif., on Saturday, March 12, 2011, after a powerful tsunami sent repeated surges that broke up docks and tore loose boats, bouncing them around the basin like billiard balls. Fishermen who managed to get their boats out before the tsunami landed small catches of crab as the struggling port tried to get back to some normalcy amid millions of dollars worth of damage.  (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press) Sunken and damaged boats litter the boat basin at Crescent City, Calif., on Saturday, March 12, 2011, after a powerful tsunami sent repeated surges that broke up docks and tore loose boats, bouncing them around the basin like billiard balls. Fishermen who managed to get their boats out before the tsunami landed small catches of crab as the struggling port tried to get back to some normalcy amid millions of dollars worth of damage. (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press)

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 were pleasure boats, including 60 that 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.

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 found 18 vessels "sitting on the bottom," creating an environmental risk from leaking fuel, Ekers said.

U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, right, talks with local fisherman Joe Wallace, whose boat Sea Pearl moors in the Crescent City boat basin, Saturday, March 12, 2011, in Crescent City, Calif., after Friday's tsunami in Northern California.  (The Times-Standard, Josh Jackson, Associated Press) U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, right, talks with local fisherman Joe Wallace, whose boat Sea Pearl moors in the Crescent City boat basin, Saturday, March 12, 2011, in Crescent City, Calif., after Friday's tsunami in Northern California. (The Times-Standard, Josh Jackson, Associated Press)

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.

Across the ocean in Hawaii, the waves damaged at least 60 homes, sank up to 15 boats, and battered hundreds of vessels. But authorities said they were thankful there was no loss of life or injuries reported; residents had hours to prepare or evacuate as the tsunami rushed from Japan at 500 mph.

Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark said that in addition to evacuating residents in low-lying areas, his officers had to do crowd control as townspeople gathered to watch the swells.

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

U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, right, surveys damage as Harbormaster Rich Young, second from right, talks about the tsunami surges and their effects Saturday, March 12, 2011, in Crescent City, Calif., after Friday's tsunami in Northern California.  (The Times-Standard, Josh Jackson, Associated Press) U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, right, surveys damage as Harbormaster Rich Young, second from right, talks about the tsunami surges and their effects Saturday, March 12, 2011, in Crescent City, Calif., after Friday's tsunami in Northern California. (The Times-Standard, Josh Jackson, Associated Press)

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."

Associated Press writer Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, Calif., contributed to this report.

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