Crescent City rebuilds after tsunami

November 30, 2011 10:08:59 PM PST
The small town of Crescent City is the nation's biggest exporter of Dungeness crab. It's also the most likely spot on the West Coast to be hit by a tsunami. Waves destroyed the harbor there last spring.

On March 11, waves rippling out from the massive earthquake in Japan crashed into Crescent City's harbor and ripped it apart. Boats broke free from their moorings and collided, dragging pieces of broken docks that were already cracked and weakened from another tsunami in 2006.

"It took all these damaged docks and it just swirled around like a big Mixmaster and shattered them all over the place; we had docks and boats all piled up in the far corner, there were like 12-14 boats sunk, maybe more," Harbor Commissioner Pat Bailey said.

Now, on a barge in the middle of the harbor, a giant excavator is working to dredge up the 90,000 cubic yards of sand the tsunami brought in, making the harbor too shallow for bigger boats. One scoop at a time, the work is slow and the deadline is tight.

"Usually at this time ever year the entire parking lot starts to fill up with crabbing baskets," Mayor Charles Slert said.

To Slert, those crab pots mean jobs. The season's about to start and the fishing industry makes up more than one-third of Crescent City's economy.

"So if we miss this season, it would be absolutely critical," Slert said. "And you have to understand that the harbor, the city and the county is all very closely interrelated. If the harbor coughs, the city sneezes and the county shivers. This is a fishing harbor and it's very critical that we be able to keep it a fishing harbor."

So Young picked up the phone and asked for a big favor. He got old, creaky wood that came all the way from San Francisco. Call it serendipity -- San Francisco was remodeling its west marina and gave Crescent City its old docks for free.

"It turns out that they fit very well here and we're tying boats up to them as we speak," Young said.

Even with new temporary docks replacing some of these old broken ones, the harbor designed for more than 200 boats will only fit about 80. That takes care of the local fishing fleet, but for the traveling fishermen so vital to Crescent City's economy, the harbor has been racing to implement Plan B.

Helical anchors are giant corkscrews driven into the bottom of the harbor. Visiting boats can tie up to them when the docks are full.

Crescent City will be ready for crab season. But Young knows this is just the beginning.

"This is Cape Mendocino, this is where the San Andreas Fault runs offshore," he said.

Through a fluke of geology the ocean floor off Crescent City's coast is shaped like a funnel, amplifying the force of tsunami waves no matter where they come from.

In 1964, a great wave wiped out most of downtown. It's only a matter of time before it happens again.

That's what the boulders and a concrete wall are for. Over the next year, Crescent City will rebuild its harbor to withstand exactly the kind of wave that destroyed it last March.

"It's going to be stronger and better than it was before, it just takes time and money to get there," Young said.

Federal emergency grants will pay for most of it, but the harbor district is still $4 million short. They're determined to find the money quickly because tsunamis wait for no one.


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