Crescent City seeks 'tsunami-resistant' port

  • A March 12, 2011 photo shows sunken and damaged boats in the boat basin at Crescent City, Calif., after a powerful tsunami sent repeated surges that broke up docks and tore loose boats. After one tsunami after another over the decades, the port hopes that repairs under way will make the harbor able to withstand a similar tsunami in the future. (AP Photo/Jeff Barnard)

CRESCENT CITY -- It doesn't matter if the earth sways in Chile, Alaska or Japan, the formation of the sea floor along the West Coast generally aims any tsunami surges at the tiny port town of Crescent City.

Churning water rushes into the boat basin and then rushes out, lifting docks off their pilings, tearing boats loose and leaving the city's main economic engine looking as if it has been bombed.

That's what happened in March 2011, when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake in Japan sparked a tsunami that devastated Japan's northeastern coast and traveled across the Pacific to Crescent City, sinking 11 boats, damaging 47 others and destroying two-thirds of the harbor's docks.

Port officials are hoping that tsunami is among the last of many that have forced major repairs in Crescent City, a tiny commercial fishing village in Del Norte County. Officials are spending $54 million to build the West Coast's first harbor able to withstand the kind of tsunami expected to hit once every 50 years -- the same kind that hit in 2011, when the highest surge in the boat basin measured 8.1 feet and currents were estimated at 22 feet per second.

Officials are building 244 new steel pilings that will be 30 inches in diameter and 70 feet long. Thirty feet or more will be sunk into bedrock. The dock nearest the entrance will be 16 feet long and 8 feet deep to dampen incoming waves. The pilings will extend 18 feet above the water so that surges 7? feet up and 7? feet down will not rip docks loose.

Crescent City was not the only West Coast port slammed by the tsunami. The waves ripped apart docks and sank boats in Santa Cruz and did similar damage in Brookings, Ore., just north of Crescent City. But their geographical location doesn't make them as vulnerable to multiple tsunamis.

"Normally, Crescent City takes the hit for all of us," said Brookings harbormaster Ted Fitzgerald.

Since a tidal gauge was installed in the boat basin in 1934, this small port has been hit by 34 tsunamis, large and small. It typically suffers the most damage and the highest waves on the West Coast, said Lori Dengler, professor of geology at Humboldt State University.

The sea floor funnels surges into the mouth of Crescent City's harbor, and the harbor's configuration magnifies them, experts say.

A wave generated by an earthquake in Alaska on Good Friday in 1964, killed 11 people and wiped out 29 city blocks. That was 10 years before the boat basin was even built.

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