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B. THE TSUNAMI of 1964

The flood of December 1964 was not the first disaster to strike the Humboldt Coast in that year. In the last week of March, a terrific earthquake, which registered 8.8 on the Richter scale, devastated Anchorage, Alaska, and other points in Kenai Peninsula of the 49th State. Unknown to residents of the Humboldt Coast, the quake sent a tidal wave, or more properly a tsunami, racing south westward at a speed of 500 miles per hour. [15]

Shortly before midnight on March 28, a huge wave struck the Crescent City area. Houses and businesses on Front Street were first to feel the destructive force, as the water "moved into the city bringing with it logs and debris." Unlike tidal waves of the movies, the tsunami was characterized by a rapid raising of the water with smaller waves riding its crest. As the first wave subsided, officers of the Del Norte County sheriff's department and the city police advanced into the area to survey the damage, to discourage looters, and to control sightseers.

As the officers were starting to clear the downtown area, a second wave swept in. At the time of its arrival, Front Street was choked with wreckage which in places blocked traffic. The second wave struck with less force than the first, as did the third. But the fourth, a raging torrent, swept across part of the city with a violence that "litterly tore up business and private buildings, and in some instances carrying complete buildings considerable distances from their foundations." Power and communication lines went down. Automobiles were smashed, and in many cases left upside down or through store fronts. Receding, the fourth wave left in its wake a large area of "total destruction, and many families searching for loved ones." [16]

Ten-month-old William Eugene Wright was torn from his mother's arms by the surging flood sea tide, as she sought to reach safety. William and his sister Bonita Ione, age 3, were drowned. The waves, which at some points reached a height of ten feet, claimed the lives of two couples, who with three others were spending the evening in the Long Branch Tavern, near Elk Creek. Driven from the tavern by the waves, the patrons sought to escape in a small boat, which they found nearby. Of the seven, only two men escaped as the craft was swamped. The two couples, the Earl Edwardses and the William Clausens, were drowned, as was Joan Field. Adolph Arrigoni, a long-time resident, was drowned when his home on B Street was engulfed. The 30-foot combination home and shoe repair shop trailer of Jim Parks was swept from its site at Front and Battery streets and overturned, drowning the shoemaker. The body of the 11th victim, Mrs. Lavelle Hillsberry, was found later in the wreckage. [17]

Emergency Civil Defense units moved in to assist the police and sheriff's departments to organize clean-up and rescue operations. They were assisted by volunteers, employing all sorts of equipment, to remove debris and logs blocking streets and highways. Leaking butane tanks added to the danger, and emergency crews were turned out to shut them off. Fires broke out along U.S. 101 southeast of Crescent City, destroying the Huskey-Texaco bulk plant and the Union oil plant. They spread to the Nichols Pontiac Garage & Service Station and a nearby body shop. Explosions ripped the five huge storage tanks at the bulk plant, as firemen stood by, helpless. [18]

A survey showed that 150 stores, motels, and business houses had been destroyed or badly damaged. The Del Norte Triplicate's plant was wrecked, and the editor estimated damage at $100,000. The recently opened Ben Franklin Store had been smashed by a six-foot wall of water. In the Citizen's Dock area, buildings were demolished, and the Coast Guard Station swept out into the Pacific.

Hardly had the water subsided from the fourth and final wave, before scavengers appeared and commenced looting. Liquor stores and taverns were said to be hard hit. Law officers assisted by volunteers, were organized into patrols to "discourage the human vultures who seem to swarm to disaster with but one idea, and that being to gain from other's losses." The National Guard was called out by Governor Pat Brown, and, reinforced by army reserve units, cordoned off the section of Crescent City that had felt the fury of the tsunami.

By Sunday, the 29th, work crews had made "huge strides in the cleaning out the damaged buildings." Wreckage-choked roads and streets were opened. Along U.S. 101, southeast of the city, highway crews and foresters were hard at work stacking and burning giant piles of driftwood and litter that had covered two miles of highway. [19]

Crescent City was declared a disaster area by President Johnson. In the ensuing weeks and months, the devastated section of Crescent City was rebuilt in accordance with a well-thought-out master plan.

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004