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.
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.)