Damaging Tsunami Hits NorCal Coast After Big Japan Quake

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5 / KCBS) — A tsunami triggered by a massive magnitude 8.9 earthquake in Japan rushed onto Northern California’s coast Friday, causing powerful surges that destroyed boat docks in Santa Cruz and Crescent City, sent beach-area residents in Pacifica and Half Moon Bay evacuating to higher ground and swept at least one man out to sea.

>>Photo Gallery: Bay Area Tsunami Damage

>>Photo Gallery: Japan Earthquake And Tsunami

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties to the south of San Francisco and Del Norte and Humboldt counties to the north, saying the ocean surge from tsunami waves had put infrastructure and public safety in “extreme perile.”

While much of the Bay Area was not directly affected, precautions were taken across the region after a Tsunami Warning was issued due to wave swells that began arriving just before 8 a.m. The warning was downgraded to an advisory by 4 p.m.

The surges had subsided along the West Coast by evening, according to the Tsunami Warning Center.

Missing NorCal Man

The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched helicopters in search of a missing 25-year-old man, who officials said had been taking photos of the tsunami with friends at the mouth of the Klamath River near Crescent City when a wave pulled him out around 10 a.m. Friends who tried to rescue him made it back to shore, but the man remained missing.

The Coast Guard said the search was suspended after seven hours and they declared the man dead Friday evening when crews in boats and in helicopters covered more than 250 square miles looking for him.

The man’s identity was withheld as authorities tried to contact his family, said Joey Young, a spokesman for the emergency operations center of Del Norte County.

“We had one person reported missing who has been confirmed dead,” Young said. “The Coast Guard has been doing a search for the body, but the oceanic conditions are making it very difficult.”

Added Coast Guard Lt. Todd Vorenkamp, “The waters here are very cold and very rough seas, so if you’re not in a survival suit or a dry suit, then your chances of survival are very slim.”

“I don’t know if it was a tsunami that got this guy or just standard northern California waves,” Vorenkamp continued. “But there was tsunami activity in the area at that time.”

He explained, “The shoreline here is a dangerous, treacherous place on a good day, and with a tsunami warning, it’s exponentially worse.”

“The Northern California coast is a very unforgiving maritime environment on a good day,” he indicated. “It happens more times than you think when a person gets washed away by a wave.”

Crescent City Damage

Local damage seemed to be restricted mainly to the Crescent City and Santa Cruz harbors, where dozens of vessels crashed into one another and were sinking.

Crescent City Councilwoman Kelly Schellong said the docks and harbor there were “pretty much completely destroyed” after being hammered by at least three tsunami waves, including one reaching a record 8.1 feet — even higher than the 7-foot surges that hit Hawaii.

Some fishermen in Crescent City had fired up their crab boats and left the harbor to ride out the expected swell.

“Many boats left the harbor” before Friday morning’s evacuation of the downtown area, said Young. “Some did not.”

Water rushing into the harbor had destroyed or damaged about 35 boats and ripped chunks off the wooden docks, as marina workers and fishermen scrambled to secure property in between surges. When the water returned, someone would yell “Here comes another one!” to clear the area.

“The damage from this is probably going to go into the millions, easily,” said Bill Steven, a commander with the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office.

Ted Scott, a retired mill worker who lived in Crescent City when a 1964 tsunami killed 11 in his town, watched the water pour into the harbor.

“This is just devastating. I never thought I’d see this again,” Scott said. “I watched the docks bust apart. It buckled like a graham cracker.”

Vincent Mealue, who also survived the 1964 disaster, didn’t take any chances and picked up his grandson on the edge of the evacuation area.

“Anybody who has lived here a long time takes this pretty seriously,” Mealue said. “There have been a lot of scares, but it only takes one time to be the real deal.”

The waves, however, did not make it over a 20-foot break wall protecting the rest of the city, and no serious injuries or building damage was immediately reported.

Three Red Cross shelters were set up to help the displaced. Young could not estimate how many of the city’s 5,000 residents were evacuated.

That evacuation was lifted by nightfall and authorities reopened a 55-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 101 in the area that was closed for much of the day.

The Crescent City area is particularly vulnerable to tsunamis because it lies directly west of the Mendocino Escarpment, a raised ridge on the ocean floor that sits between two ocean plates and directs wave energy at the nearby coastal city.

“Crescent City is a special case. They always get it worse, it doesn’t matter where the tsunami comes from,” said Paul Huang, a seismologist with the federal Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, which monitors the West Coast.

In 2006, large tsunami waves triggered by a massive earthquake off Japan’s coast caused nearly $1 million of damage to Crescent City’s harbor, and some residents scrambled to safety last year when Chile’s earthquake sparked warnings but ultimately no huge swells.

Santa Cruz Damage

Friday’s tsunami also caused significant boat damage in Santa Cruz, where dozens of loose fishing boats crashed into one another and chunks of wooden docks also broke off. The water rushed out as quickly as it poured in, leaving the boats tipped over in mud. A sailboat also crashed into the harbor bridge.

“We are just getting our whole harbor wrecked,” said longtime maintenance worker Eileen Sundet. “This is just so sad.”

“I’m worried about the damage, not just to the boats but to the whole harbor infrastructure,” added Dave Emberson, an engineer and local harbor official in Santa Cruz.

Lisa Ekers, director of the Santa Cruz Port District, said preliminary estimates there put damage costs around $15 million. Of the 800 fishing and pleasure boats normally docked in the harbor, 30 to 40 have been destroyed or sunk, she said.

Another 100 private vessels suffered what county spokesman Enrique Sahagun termed “significant damage.”

About 200 residents stood awestruck every time surges of water caused docks to rattle and boats to come loose and crash into each other, their voices competing with the whirring of three helicopters hovering over the harbor.

“As we stood and watched, we saw the water rise up and the boats
and docks shifting,” said Robin Gallo, a retired construction worker who rode over to the harbor on his bicycle.

An evacuation order went into effect about 6 a.m. for beachfront homes near the harbor — but that didn’t stop surfers, who raced to the beach to catch the waves undeterred.

“The tides are right, the swell is good, the weather is good, the tsunami is there. We’re going out,” said William Hill, an off-duty police officer.

Fortunately, no injuries were reported in Santa Cruz. The evacuation order was lifted by 5 p.m.

San Mateo County Evacuations

In San Mateo County, authorities also evacuated all beaches and low-lying coastal areas west of Highway 1 in response to the tsunami.

Residents in the Linda Mar area of Pacifica were evacuated to the east of Adobe Drive. Those in El Granada were evacuated to the east of Coronado Street.

Evacuation shelters were established at Terra Nova High School, Oceana High School, Farallone View Elementary School and Pescadero High School.

Hundreds of cars also parked on the side of state Highway 92 during the morning rush hour as people evacuated from Half Moon Bay.

Water levels rose slightly, about 8 inches, in Half Moon Bay’s Pillar Point Harbor, with surges of water as high as 2 or 3 feet — but no damage had been reported there.

There were no reported injuries or loss of life related to the ocean surge, county officials said.

School districts in Half Moon Bay, Pacifica and the Pescadero area were all closed for the day.

San Francisco Impact

In San Francisco, police closed the Great Highway from Point Lobos at 48th Avenue to Lake Merced until late afternoon, but the city didn’t order any evacuations.

“I feel confident we will not be hurt by this,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee proclaimed at a morning City Hall news conference.

The bluffs above San Francisco’s Ocean Beach were dotted with roughly 30 spectators who couldn’t resist seeing the effects of the tsunami for themselves.

The sun was shining, the air was warm, and the waves seemed no more dramatic than most days, several Sunset District residents said.

“This looks normal,” said construction salesman Greg Miller, who lives a few blocks from the beach. “It hit Hawaii too and didn’t seem to do anything to Hawaii.”

Nonetheless, officials advised beachgoers to stay out of the water until around 2 p.m. Saturday.

Meantime, numerous flights between Japan and San Francisco International Airport were canceled or rerouted, officials said.

Bay Area Rapid Transit officials considered canceling train service between West Oakland and Daly City as a precaution, beacuse stations in that area are underground or below sea level. But worries about the possibility of water getting inside the stations and tunnels didn’t materialize.

Experts said online tools such as Earthtools.org can help determine your home’s risk of being hit by a tsunami.

(© 2011 CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)

  • John Milinovich

    How realistic is the threat to the Bay Area?

    • GAZZAR

      All these things happening in the world lately is a huge sign of the beginning of the end. That’s just my opinion.

      • http://spinnyliberal.wordpress.com SpinnyLiberal

        That’s hella messed up Joey Balboni. And not just because I happen to agree.

      • Joey Balboni

        I hope all these things happening are a “huge sign” of you meeting your end first. That’s just my opinion

    • Yader

      It depends on what happens in Hawaii I would think.

      • meo

        Any chance SF will have to evacuate?

      • Eve A

        Hawaii had a 2.7 quake at 1:45 am pacific time…….

      • Norman Seward

        there are about 1000 2.7 quakes in the world everyday

  • marsha

    It is stated that US West Coast is on a Tsunami “watch” and not a tsunami warning, so that we are not in imminent danger. Could cause big surf.

    • Tonya Davis

      It’s a WARNING not a watch. Go to the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center website: they estimate waves to hit SF at 8:08 am. The site does say arrival time does not mean waves are imminent, but I am packed and ready to leave Oakland at any time. They also have a map showing yellow watch zones and red warning zones – CA coast is outlined in RED. http://wcatwc.arh.noaa.gov/2011/03/11/lhvpd9/06/webetalhvpd9-06.txt

    • ELO


      • Linda Simi

        Yes, You have the best post so far. I am not worried inland in the East Bay. But people should stop saying Watch, which it is not. I have never this am heard the word “watch”.

      • Linda Simi

        The rise of tide is currently 8 inches on the calif coast. This may be the beginning or it may actually be the top wave. This could be the begining, middle or end of the event. They will probably remove the “warning” in 2 hrs.

      • ferris

        all the americans are too exagerate… is just a watch in meny beaches are waves of 3 ft regularly

    • Linda Simi

      This is what we hope for just a big surf, I am listening now and it is a warning not a watch. Don’t panic, but be smart. It is low tide and this will help. But in this situation NO ONE knows what will happen until it does. So, for those who do nothing in an area that might be hit, you should worry more than those inland.

  • dillon williams

    will we find out soon what to expect?

  • dillon williams

    it is a WARNING!

  • anil dhupelia

    Can you estimate if the bay area and cities like Albany , Richmond,
    Berkeley , Emeryville,, Oakland could be subject to tsunami damage and how far away should people be to avoid injury.Please broadcast on radio and map on tv and online.Are volunteers needed.
    Thank you.

  • andres

    IS it a watch or a warning ??????

    • chris

      its now a warning

  • Tom 'Tsunami Tom' T

    it’s very very real. Trust me.

  • Lydia

    What about San Jose? Does anyone think there could be damage there?

    • Ian Scott Armstrong

      It’s like threading a blast through the eye of a needle. The narrow choke-point of the GGB will mitigate it a bit but if something hits us you should be off the flats by 7:30am.

      • Amanda yarnell

        Hey Ian. Look after yourself and let me know how things turnout. I’m crossing my fingers. Be safe. Xxx Amanda

      • Mary

        Ian – you truly called it! The “eye of a needle” was an excellent analogy as well. Thanks for the insight & hope you managed to take in this truly amazing show by “mother nature”!

    • Norman Seward

      Climb Everest! I think the summit may be spared

  • Iamheatherj

    FYI watching news and warning sirens were activated in Maui about an hour ago

  • marsha

    It is a WATCH. not WARNING as I heard reported on u tube. No need to panic, I doubt the entire city of SF for example(where I am) will be covered in water!! Beware of sensationalist reporting!!!!!!!

    • Michele

      Watch the news on CNN, Fox and local stations. Marsha you are incorrect. The National Weather Center has issued a WARNING (not a Watch). Please refer to the National Weather Center and/or the Pacific Weather Center.

      • Linda

        I believe this is a Warning and not a Watch, Considering shutting down BART

    • mike

      Well Marsha how about you go sip some hot toddies on ocean beach while the rest of us keep an eye out. Best of luck to ya. Take pictures with ur cell phone for us, k?

    • VG

      No, the entire city of SF w/NOT be covered but It is a warning and unpredictable – Grow up!

  • Tom 'Tsunami Tom' T

    Tsunami Tom says “do not underestimate the terrors a Tsunami can inflict. Please show you are smart by taking this warning serious. This is not a watch, but a warning. If you are a surfer, please do not try to ride the Tsunami, as i have done in the past. How do you think i gots the name Tsunami Tom? TTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTsunami Tom in the house!

  • Ryan

    It is, in fact, a warning according to the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.
    You can check whether your particular area is under warning at:

  • brian
  • Sherron

    IT IS A WARNING!!!! Not A watch per U.S.Severe weather alerts on my iPhone weather, also on yahoo for bay area, also fox new channel covering live and per local radio. Get up to date marsha.

  • http://Www.girlzoffaith.blogspot.com Trina

    How far inland does a tsunami go? Is martinez far enough away from the SF coast? Should I tell my son, who lives in SF, to take BART home to Martinez tonight?

    • Norman Seward

      from Martinez, hop on Amtrack and head for Chicago, he may be able to outrun it

  • Tom 'Tsunami Tom' T

    People… Get to higher ground ASAP. This is Tsunami Tom with the latest advice on this Tsunami warning. The entire pacific ocean has been warned. Tsunami Tom will be answering questions and signing autographs at the beach starting at 7:00AM. Then I will surf the Tsunami starting under the GG bridge, as far as it takes me inland. Be there!

    • CaliforniaGal

      that’s funny… :) Tom, you’re funny. I’ll be there to watch you!

  • ernest

    have faith in God

  • Cloudy

    What’s the betting Ocean Beach and the Golden Gate Bridge will be jammed with people waiting to watch the tsunami roll in? The biggest disaster will probably be the morning traffic.

  • Sherron

    Read the above article. It lists the counties affected by the warning. Contra Costa County for example. If you live on the delta or near any water ways get out

  • eric

    what are the chances that san jose will be hit?

    • Lily

      God I hope San Jose isn’t hit, I live there with most of my family.

    • John

      Why is it that so many people over react to Tsunami warnings? I understand if you live on the coast but San Jose? Really? Come on now people. Get a grip and say a prayer for the people of Japan.

  • Warren

    does this mean i shouldn’t go to school tomorrow? i go to City College of San Francisco.

    • Tripp Knightly

      Your question suggests you should avail yourself to every day of school you can get.

      • Norman Seward


  • marsha

    I just heard on cnn that water on west coast could rise 3 to 4 feet if there is tsunami, affecting people living on or very near the shore. People THAT close to water may have to move a bit. No, I’ve never surfed in my life, have no plan to go to the beach to ride a wave tonight, I live in SF inland. WATCH–WARNING–TOMATO–TOMAHTO, a rose by any other name!!!!!! My heart goes out to people of Japan, that’s where the real didaster is. I’m a 62 year old woman, very informed, and have the sense to listen and not panic. I’ve lived through hurricanes back east where I’m from.
    So chill out, take care, and that’s all I have to say for today..

    • GoalieGrrl

      Warning = Inundating wave possible = Full evacuation suggested
      Watch = Danger level not yet known = Stay alert for more info.
      That’s from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Warning = prepare to evacuate. Watch = Stay alert for more info. You grow some weird-ass tomatoes if they differ that greatly. Normally I wouldn’t reply to such ignorance but you might influence someone, and if they base their immediate decisions on your misinformed nonsense, then it’s on my head if I don’t correct you. Check this map: http://wcatwc.arh.noaa.gov/2011/03/11/lhvpd9/06/wwareaslhvpd9-06.gif

  • Terry Sandie

    What exactly does this mean for surrounding cities?

  • Chris

    Other media indicates that the first waves to reach the mouth of the Bay would be at about 8am our time. From CNN it sounded like it is difficult to predict wave size until it reaches buoy sensors. At least that’s what they are saying about Hawaii atvthis point. Also I saw that the Big Island just had a 4.5 earthquake of their own. Wow…

  • Joe

    At Sendai on the nearby coast of Japan they had 3 meters (~12 feet). By the time it hits the Bay area is should be greatly diminshed and I doubt it would do more than add a foot or so to the average water height. However, everything is compressed as it goes through the mouth of the Bay so it could be a great to see from the heights of the surrounding areas, Marin headlands, Presidio park (up high), etc.

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