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The Nation

March 14, 2011

Calif. port town attracts tsunamis

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — Since the tidal gauge was installed in the boat basin in 1934, this small port on California's rugged northern coast has been hit by 34 tsunamis, large and small.

The latest on Friday took one life about 20 miles to the south at the mouth of the Klamath River, where a young man was on the beach with friends taking pictures. The waves also roared into the boat basin here, ripping up docks, sinking 11 boats and damaging 47, causing untold millions of dollars in damage, authorities said.

"Crescent City is what I call a tsunami magnet," said Lori Dengler, professor of geology and chair of the Geology and Oceanography departments at Humboldt State University.

"When you look at the contiguous 48 states, there is no question that Crescent city has had more damage, and typically has the highest water levels recorded at any West Coast site, no matter where it comes from — whether it comes from Chile, or Alaska or Japan," she said.

Chris Goldfinger, professor of marine geology and ocean geophysics at Oregon State University, agreed.

"Crescent City gets hammered time and time again because the basic configuration of the place never changes," he said in an e-mail. "The harbor is very small, so the waves are trapped inside and bounce around, making a chaotic flow inside as more waves arrive and do the same thing, adding to the mess. Other larger harbors tend to absorb the energy."

One factor that saved the port from even more damage was that the surge hit at low tide, keeping it within the confines of the breakwalls around the harbor, Dengler said.

A network of deep-sea warning sensors alerted the whole West Coast hours in advance before the surges from the 8.9 earthquake off Japan hit here on Friday morning.

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