CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of possibly the most destructive earthquakes in U.S. history, and one of the most devastating tsunami’s to ever hit the West Coast. The Good Friday Alaska Quake of 1964 generated a huge wave that pounded the Southern Oregon and Northern California coast, killing more than a dozen people in our area.
The tides and surf washing ashore at crescent city are a far cry from the giant waves that almost swept the Northern California town out to sea fifty years ago. The tsunami from the Alaska quake destroyed much of the town, causing more than seven million dollars damage and killing 13 people on March 27, 1964.
“It was, of course, pitch black, and there was a little old Greek lady who lived down the street from me, and she was just frightened to death and her screams were just…I never heard anything like it. And she kept it up for what seemed like hours,” recalled tsunami survivor Ernestine Buzzini.
Ray Young’s bakery business was destroyed in the disaster.
“By the time I got to town, Fifth Street, dad came out of the bakery, the second wave come in. It was up to his knees,” Young recalled. “And they give the ‘all clear’ and brought all the heavy equipment in, started moving some driftwood. Then the bay emptied out completely and here it come back. And when it come back, it just kept coming.”
Nick Gargaeteas and his family ran an old motel that was no match for the waves either:
“We had water that was at the five foot level,” said Gargaeteas. “All these units that we had there they’d been there a long time. They were not anchored to the ground. It picked them up, and out they went!”
That was shortly after midnight, and it was chaos. A group of birthday partyers at a local tavern were washed out to sea and were among the 13 people who died here. It came from a massive earthquake that almost destroyed anchorage and several other coastal Alaskan towns.
Del Norte Civil Defense Director Bill Parker says, based on the size of the quake and the 30 foot high tide already there, he ordered evacuations.
“Finally, our time is running out. So we just went ahead and started evacuating. But I think we only had about 25, 30 minutes left to do it,” said Parker.
The damage was total where the water swept ashore. Business owners were forced to tear most everything down and start over. This large tetrapod was knocked off its base. Fishing boats were scattered around. And after the mess was cleaned up, it took years to rebuild. Most of the destroyed old town was turned into a large waterfront park and mall, while some businesses still reflect the legacy of the big wave of ’64.
“Everybody really pulled together and that’s what made the town. And they always have,” Ray says. “And it’s really a nice feeling the community behind you all the time and they always are.”
A recent poll by the Crescent City Triplicate newspaper says 60% of its readers believe the community has mostly recovered from the 1964 tsunami. In addition to the 13 people killed at Crescent City, four campers on a beach near Newport were also killed in the tsunami from the Alaska quake.