California harbor 'destroyed' by tsunami, but damage less severe elsewhere
The tsunami created by Japan's 8.9 earthquake has now hit the West Coast. Early reports suggest that two California towns – Crescent City and Santa Cruz – have been hit hardest.
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In Santa Monica, Calif., near Los Angeles, where a tsunami advisory was still in effect as of Friday afternoon, people openly scoffed as a lifeguard in a yellow van shuttled between camera-toting bystanders, telling them to leave the beach.Skip to next paragraph
“No one here is taking this seriously,” the life guard says. “I have to keep circling and telling them over and over. ”
The attendant at Sea Mist Skate and Bike Rentals just off the boardwalk wasn’t buying the warnings.
“The authorities have totally oversold this danger,” he quipped. “I was here in 1983 when 20-foot waves crashed through the pier, and I lived to tell about it. Six foot wave warnings don’t even concern me.”
But scientists say tsunamis are not normal waves and should not be dismissed lightly. Even a wave as small as six inches high can “grab your feet and knock you down,” says Paul Huang, a seismologist at the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer.
That’s because “the entire ocean is pushing a tsunami wave.” In contrast, he says, waves created by the wind might go down 10 or 20 feet, “but the rest of the ocean is still.”
Eyewitnesses in Santa Cruz compared the surge there with a massive river. "It was like a 10 to 15 mile an hour current," resident Michael Sack told the Mercury-News. "It started slow and came up about five feet."
This points to one of the challenges of tsunami emergencies, says former FEMA administrator Carlos Castillo, now with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Washington. “People underestimate the danger because they don’t see the big picture,” he says.
They look out their window and see a calm sea or a pretty blue sky and say to themselves, "How bad can it be," he says. "That’s why officials with more information put out warnings and advisories, and people need to pay attention to what they say."
Part of the disconnect is that people don’t immediately grasp the local connection to a seismic event half a world away. The initial tsunami wave moves across the ocean at about 650 miles an hour – the speed of jet plane – and thus takes about 12 hours to cross from Japan to the US West coast. Following waves travel nearly as fast.