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Tsunami Sinks Boats at Santa Cruz Harbor, Creates Panic

Wave-related damage appears isolated to the harbor; evacuation warnings lifted at 4:15 p.m.

Editor's Note: This article was updated throughout the day, with our most recent update at 10:30 p.m.

The Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor has been declared a local emergency by county officials after wave swells caused at least 20 boats to break free of their moorings Friday morning.

Early damage estimates topped $15 million, county spokesman Enrique Sahagun said. Two docks and 100 other boats sustained damage due to the surge, he said. No injuries were reported.

The damage was the result of a small tsunami surge from a devastating 8.9 magnitude Japanese earthquake, the largest in that country's recorded history.

About 4:15 p.m. county officials advised the tsunami warning had been downgraded to an advisory and that everyone could be allowed to return to their homes.

As evening settled in, Santa Cruz beaches were remarkably quiet. From 3- 4 p.m. as high tide approached, there were only four people at 26th Street Beach, which is usually crowded with after school surfers on a sunny day.  The parking lot had only a few cars and plenty of spaces open, which is as unlikely as an empty lot at the mall before Christmas.

 Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency in four counties across the state, including Santa Cruz, San Mateo, Del Norte and Humboldt. This means that county agencies are unlikely to manage the damage from the large waves by themselves, so regional organizations will have the ability to pool resources.

A tsunami warning was issued early Friday morning in the region after the quake off the northeast coast of Japan led to a tsunami that killed hundreds of people. Precautions were taken across the region, including evacuation plans, transit cancellations and school closures.

Residents who live in an inundation zone, or coastal or low-lying areas such as Beach Flats in Santa Cruz, were told by automated phone calls to evacuate their homes and move to higher ground, Sahagun said.

But the warning created some hysteria. Roads were jammed leaving the county Friday morning.

“There is a little bit of panic out there. There’s heavy, heavy congestion on Highway 17 [with] people wanting to get up to the restaurants, because that’s the highest ground," California Highway Patrol officer Sarah Jackson said, adding that in the South County, residents headed up Highway 152 to Mount Madonna for safety. “Thre’s really no reason to panic. It’s just those who live near the coastline.”

Santa Cruz police reported that roads to the Santa Cruz Beach Flats area, including the Boardwalk and Wharf, were closed because of the tsunami warning.

The swells were expected around 8 a.m. Boats at the harbor pulled free of docks and were crashing into one another at about 9:20 a.m. near Aldo's Harbor Restaurant, general manager Alfredo Servin said.

The diner is right on the water at 616 Atlantic Ave., and Servin said he could also see a lot of debris. He said his restaurant was not open for business.

"We don't want to put people in danger," he said. "We have highway
and city police advising us what to do."

Servin said he could see quite a few people out in the harbor, but it was not clear if they were all emergency officials.

Harbor officials advised the public to evacuate the area.

"Do not come to the harbor to secure your vessel," said a warning on the harbor's website. "Harbor crews are working to secure the area."

Reception areas for evacuees were established at Davenport Fire Department Community Center, Jade Street Park in Capitola, Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium at 307 Church St. in Santa Cruz, Resurrection Church at State Park Drive  and Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds off East Lake Avenue, Sahagun said.

In Watsonville, parents pulled their kids from school, even though campuses were operating as scheduled, according to Brett McFadden, chief business officer for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District.

"The problems we've been having have been somewhat on the panic level by folks," he said. "But we're going to go through the day. Our kids are safe, our sites are safe and everything's OK."

Residents of Pajaro Dunes Resort, right on the lip of the Bay, weren't evacuated, but many began leaving on their own at 6 a.m.

"People were walking on the beach," said Tommy Davis, 65, a former Santa Clara County Sheriff's Captain. "The tide receded approxmately 75 yards, but we didn't see anything unusual. A sheriff was driving up and down. It was as uneventful as the snow warnings last week."

In Aptos, people gathered on the cliffs over Seacliff State Park beach. Some were anxious; some were like tourists in their own neighborhood.

"Somebody woke me and told me about it," said Rio del Mar resident Bert Smith, 87. "I had just taken a sleeping pill. Then my daughter came and got me and said, 'Let's go watch it and then go out to breakfast.' It's very exciting. I locked my cat upstairs, and he's going to be very unhappy."

The mobile homes that fill Seacliff State Park were evacuated and moved to the upper parking lot, and some businesses were closed close to the beach.

Across Highway 1 at Heather's Bakery, the mood was lighter. Charlie, who goes just by his first name, was buying coffee and a pastry wearing a swimsuit and goggles. 

"I'm ready," he said. 

Capitola residents watched the beach in amazement.

“We've been out here for about an hour and a half to two hours, and the water about 20 minutes ago receded, which is one of the indicators of parts of a tsunami, and then it came back in,” said Steve Krull, 59, of Santa Cruz.

“All the exposed rocks and reefs have all been exposed in about the last three to four minutes. That is incredibly unusual— the tide just doesn't move that quick in normal cases.”

With the behavior of the tide, which has been surging and receding repeatedly at the Capitola Beach, resident Ed Bottorff said it was obvious that a phenomenon was occurring. 

“There are people who live here who say they have never seen it this low," said Bottorff, 56. "Normal tides don't take the water this far out, and you don't see all that exposed land."

— Bay City News contributed to this report.

Casey Carlson March 12, 2011 at 09:38 PM
Great photos of the Harbor, thanks!

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