Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tsunami memories

Yesterday's tsunami warnings brought a surge of memories for me. I grew up on the coast of central California, in the little town of Morro Bay, and I remember two tsunamis there.

My brother, me, my mother in the cockpit of the sloop, tied up in the marina. Nov. 1959.

The first tsunami I remember arrived in 1960, after the Chilean earthquake (the largest earthquake ever recorded). I had just turned 6. My parents owned a 22' sloop, which they kept at a marina in Morro Bay. We were sitting in its cockpit of the boat, tied up in the marina, eating lunch at a little table set up in the cockpit, when the table suddenly tilted. I remember the mustard and ketchup sliding across the table toward me. My mom hurried my brother and me to the home of some friends, who lived on one of the hills in town. Meanwhile, my dad fired up the engine and motored the sloop out into the middle of the harbor channel.
Aerial view of the harbor at Morro Bay.

Morro Bay is a long, narrow harbor protected by a peninsula of sand dunes. It doesn't get gigantic killer waves during a tsunami; it gets surges that suck the water out of the harbor as the wave approaches, and then a surge of higher-than-usual water rushing back into the harbor. The worry for a boat owner (particularly a sailboat owner--sailboats have those long, deep keels underneath) is that a boat in a shallow marina would have all the water sucked out from beneath it as the surge pulled water out of the harbor. The boat would then tip on its side, leaving it vulnerable to the surge of water rushing back into the harbor, drowning the boat (and any occupants).

(Actually, a tsunami is never a "giant killer wave," as the above illustration explains.)

So why would my dad take the sloop out into the middle of the channel when the tsunami surge hit? He knew a couple of deep places in the channel, deeper holes that (probably) wouldn't lose all their water when the tsunami sucked water out of the bay. He says that he and a friend anchored their boats over one of these holes and experienced the tsunami surges - water rushing in and out of the harbor - for several hours together.

My second tsunami memory is from 1964, after the Alaskan earthquake, when I was 10 years old. We didn't own the sloop any more, but by this time Dad was the local harbor manager. He got phone calls that a tsunami was headed south along the California coast. It had done quite a bit of damage in Crescent City, a harbor in northern California. Dad took the car and went down to the harbor when he got the call, in the late afternoon or early evening.

The view from the dunes to the ocean.

It wasn't until later that night that our neighborhood was evacuated. We lived in a housing development north of Morro Bay, low and level with easy beach access, about 4 block from the sand dunes. The fire trucks came out and warned everyone in the neighborhood with bull horns. I remember the flashing lights and noise waking me up. Dad had already taken the car into town, so Mom had to load my brother and me into the family's second vehicle - an army surplus jeep (Dad loved it, Mom tolerated it). When she tried to start it, the engine flooded, and there was nothing to do but wait for a while. The rest of the neighbors had already left; we could see their car headlights in the hills across the highway; they had headed for higher ground. When Mom finally got the jeep started, she decided to take us to the real estate office where she worked, which was on a hill in town. But to get there, we had to drive for 2 or 3 miles along the beach, with only the sand dunes between us and the highway. The highway was empty. I remember wondering if the tsunami would hit while we were on that highway. (It didn't.)

When the tsunami did come, it was smaller than had been predicted, and did only minor damage in the main harbor. It didn't come anywhere near our house. I remember my dad telling how it looked when the water was sucked out of the harbor, "like waterfalls going down the pilings of the piers."

Here's a link to the tsunami event yesterday on California's central coast, both at Morro Bay, where I lived until I was 14 and at Port San Luis, where we lived when I was a teenager.
Morro Rock - the landmark at the entrance to Morro Bay, California.


Dorothy said...

Thanks for adding the aerial view of Morro helps to visualize your story setting. Those are great memories!

Polly @ Pieces by Polly said...

Yeah, I was thinking about you and those earthquake/tsunami stories when I heard the news. Love you!

Andrea Surfleet said...

I'm the historian with the Morro Bay Yacht Club and would love to hear more stories about your time in Morro Bay.

Andrea Surfleet said...

I'm the historian with the Morro Bay Yacht Club and would love to hear more stories about your time in Morro Bay.