Remembering the Deadly 75-Foot Tidal Wave that Leveled Crescent City in 1964

Beginning in Northern California and running all the way up to Alaska in the Pacific Ocean sits multiple fault lines that produce frequent earthquakes. The quakes typically aren’t felt by those living in coastal communities, but they do present a much bigger risk if the conditions are just right.

When you think of natural disasters in NorCal, you’ll probably first think of wildfires and floods. But a tsunami caused by offshore earthquakes can be deadly for anyone on the coast. And there’s no better example of this sort of disaster than the giant tsunami that hit Crescent City in the 1960’s.

On March 28, 1964, a 9.2 magnitude earthquake slammed Alaska, killing 131 people and causing $116 million in damages. It remains the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America and its carnage was felt all the way down in Northern California.

From the quake caused multiple tidal waves down Washington, Oregon and NorCal, with waves slamming the Pacific Northwest and killing four children in Oregon’s Beverly Beach State Park. But the worst damage was felt in the far reaches of Northern California, where a 75-foot wall of water slammed Crescent City, killing 12 people and causing $23 million in damage.

Reports from the time describe trucks washing down Crescent City’s main street before bursting into flames, causing widespread fire across the town. 150 businesses were destroyed in the disaster and the town declared martial law as the decimated streets were lined with debris.

Clean up efforts alone would cost $300,000 and the fishing fleet that dominates the town’s coastline accrued $260,000 in damages. During the aftermath, it was all hands on deck as the entire town, including 55 local prisoners, chipped in to clean up the ruins of their once beautiful coastal town.

Although a tsunami warning had been issued that day, locals said that many of the warnings that had been given in the past didn’t materialize. So they ignored the warnings that day, only to be surprised by a deadly wall of water to greet them on their doorsteps.

The disaster became a learning experience for the coastal towns of the Pacific Northwest, who now have extensive warning systems for impending tsunamis. Although, if one size should hit again, it’s hard to imagine the carnage being avoided entirely.

The world is full of deadly natural disasters. And when considering NorCal, you shouldn’t just think about fires and floods. Tsunamis will always be a serious threat along the North Coast.

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