The Wandering Tsunami

We don’t really have a firm grasp yet on what happens on this planet, do we?

TOKYO — A powerful undersea earthquake prompted tsunami warnings Wednesday for Japan, Russia and Alaska, but the danger passed after a series of tiny waves hit the northern Japanese coast.

Still, the event served as a useful test of Japan’s sophisticated early-warning system and of its civil-defense emergency procedures designed to speedily remove people from low-lying coastal areas.

Japan issued a major tsunami alert for the northern coast of Hokkaido and some parts of northern Honshu on Wednesday evening local time, sparking the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people in some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the nation.

Several thousand people fled to higher ground on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. The waves, however, did not swell higher than 16 inches and rapidly diminished in size.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?  After the horrific December 2004 tsunami that wiped out 200,000 lives of people who mostly had no warning, now we issue warnings on evidence of a possible disaster, and then breathe a sigh of relief when the disaster doesn’t strike.  Warnings were issued not just in Japan, but also Alaska, British Columbia and Washington state.  No warning was issued for the Philippines, but coastal villages on the northeastern end were evacuated in a panic anyway, and the villagers stayed away despite government pleadings that they return.

No warning was issued for Crescent City, California.  But that’s where the tsunami hit.

Although tsunami warnings and watches for parts of Japan and the Pacific Basin were lifted Wednesday, hours after an 8.3-magnitude underwater earthquake struck the region, large waves were reported in Hawaii and on the western coast of the United States.

A 6-foot wave struck Crescent City Harbor in Crescent City, California, and caused “extensive damage” Wednesday afternoon, according to a National Weather Service advisory. In addition, the weather service said tide gauges along the coast of northern and central California have measured surge waves of 1 to 3 feet.

Crescent City’s local newspaper, The Daily Triplicate, described two surges, one at noon, and another more than a hour later:

Fisherman Victor Reneau said the first surge measured about 8 inches, an estimation he recorded because “we were all standing around curious.”

Harbormaster Richard Young said he thought the harbor was in the clear after the initial surge, which he’d been warned of earlier in the day.

But some time after 1 p.m. he noticed the water quickly running in and out of the harbor from his harbor office.

“We thought, ‘Gee, look at that, it’s the tidal wave,'” Young said jokingly.

Shortly thereafter, he saw that H dock had broken in half, so he jumped up and helped secure a floating boat.

Young said H and G docks were completely destroyed and F dock was “severely damaged.”

Though it’s still too early to give an exact figure, Young said replacement costs of the docks could range from $400,000 to $600,000 range.

(snip)The rate and speed that the waters rushed did more damage than the size of the surges, Young said.

“It didn’t even look like a wave — the water was just raising and falling rapidly,” he said. “It was the rate of change rather than the magnitude of change.”

Fisherman John Hale said the surge came in quietly, without warning. “It was just a little wave, then all of a sudden (stuff) started falling apart,” he said.

Lori Dengler, chairwoman of the Humboldt State University geology department, said the largest surge measured five feet.

“And it occurred at low tide, which was nice — very polite of it so far,” she said. “The Crescent City Harbor is just the right size and shape to get excited when tsunamis come.”

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