If you drive through Newport and other towns on the Oregon coast, you’ll see blue and white signs warning that you are entering or leaving a tsunami evacuation zone. Frequent emergency preparedness discussions, siren tests and practice evacuations remind us that the ocean might not always stay on the beach. A big earthquake anywhere around the Pacific, even one we might not feel or know about, can send massive waves crashing into our hometowns.
In March 2011, the huge earthquake in Japan, followed by tsunamis that wiped out whole towns, showed just how bad it can be. We watched television reports that showed the waves taking away cars and buildings as if they were toys. Here on the west coast of the U.S., we woke up early wondering how bad the backlash would be on our own coasts. I live above the tsunami zone, but my aunt in California, not knowing that, woke me up at 5 a.m. Not only had she seen the reports on TV, but she grew up in Hawaii, where tsunami alerts occurred frequently. Assuring her I was safe, I got dressed and waited to see what would happen. We were relatively lucky here. A few harbors in Oregon and California, including nearby Depoe Bay, suffered some damage, but for most of us, the tidal surge was barely noticeable.
That has not always been the case. I have been reading an amazing book called The Raging Sea, in which author Dennis M. Powers of Ashland, Oregon tells the story of the 1964 tsunami that hit Crescent City, California. A few hours after an 8.4 earthquake that struck Alaska, the waves hit Crescent City with deadly force. Powers has used eye-witness reports to place us right into the action. It was midnight when the first wave hit. We see people waking up to find water eight feet high in their houses. We see others clinging to counters and rafters in their shops as the waves come up around their chins and threaten to carry them away. We see wave-borne logs bashing through windows, walls and roofs collapsing, and cars floating away with people trapped inside. We see children being swept out of the arms of their mothers and fathers.
The first two waves weren’t so bad, but some people were fooled into thinking it was over and walked right into the much bigger waves that followed. Others, having heard many false alarms over the years, decided this one wasn’t worth getting out of bed for. They were wrong. Thirty city blocks were destroyed, 289 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, and 11 people died that night. Many more were injured.
Aside from Alaska, Crescent City suffered the worst damage. But four children died on Newport’s own Beverly Beach in that 1964 tsunami. They were camping with their parents when the waves took them away. The parents were injured but survived, devastated by the loss of their children.
The Raging Sea is a great read, full of suspense and great characters, but it’s also terrifying because it really happened and could happen again. It has certainly changed how I look at the ocean.
Saturday’s Oregonian newspaper carried an article about tsunami drills in Manzanita, up the coast from us. Click here to read it.
Tsunamis don’t happen very often, thank God, but when they do, be ready to run to higher ground. Don’t stick around to watch. Pay attention to those blue and white signs. For a map of Pacific Northwest tsunami evacuation zones, click here.