Millions of dollars in damage in California after the tsunami

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When port officials warned Kenneth Stagnaro of a tsunami heading from Tonga to the port of Santa Cruz last weekend, he decided to set sail with his two boats.

There, Stagnaro, who runs a whale watching and fishing charter business, felt he could weather the worst of the tsunami.

That’s what he and dozens of other big boat owners did in 2011 when a massive tsunami triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan capsized boats in the harbor and shredded entire docks, dragging into the ocean, causing approximately $20 million in damage, and a total of $100 million in damage to ports along the California coast.

In the end, last Saturday’s tsunami that hit the California coast was smaller and less damaging. But it still caused damage estimated at $6 million in Santa Cruz alone – and served as a reminder of the importance of preparing for tsunamis along the coast.

Some experts said the latest event showed that the major improvements ports like Santa Cruz have undergone in the decade since Japan have made a difference.

“It’s a great indication that their rebuilding after 2011 has done its job,” said Patrick Lynett, a coastal engineer at USC who for the past decade has helped California cities strengthen their infrastructure in case of tsunami.

Among these cities is Crescent City, which Lynett calls “a tsunami magnet” due to its position near a major subduction zone beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean that causes major earthquakes and can cause massive tsunamis.

Since 2011, when Japan’s tsunami killed one person and destroyed much of Crescent City’s harbor, inflicting $50 million in damage, the city has rebuilt it into what it declared in 2014 as the first “tsunami-resistant port” in the world. The pilings are larger, doubling its previous size, and are planted deep in the bedrock of the seabed. The docks were designed to withstand the force of tsunamis even more powerful than those seen in 2011.

Authorities are still accounting for Saturday’s damage. Although statewide damage estimates have yet to be released, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services expects damage costs to be significantly lower than 2011. .

The tsunami, coupled with high tides, caused unprecedented flooding in parts of Santa Cruz. The waters poured into bathrooms and electrical transformers on land, as well as parking lots where cars floated like toy boats.

Harbor pilings stretch away as a January 15 tsunami pulls water from a Santa Cruz harbor.

(Shmuel Thaler / Sentinel of Santa Cruz)

Strong currents pulsated throughout the harbor, tearing up the docks, twisting the steel pipes of the harbor dredge like licorice, and floodwaters rushed in and out of the harbor, turning it into what Stagnaro described like whitewater rapids.

Experts like Lynett were still surprised at how the tsunami was generated and how long the event lasted.

Most of the tsunamis that hit the California coast – 150 since 1880 – have come from earthquakes, such as in 2011.

It’s rare for a volcanic eruption to be the culprit, Lynett said. Experts were initially taken aback by the size and power of the tsunami in the Pacific Ocean.

The large waves seen in Tonga likely originated from an underwater landslide after the volcano erupted. However, the waves generated beyond Tonga may come from the sonic boom of the explosion itself, which Lynett says is a new phenomenon.

“We haven’t seen anything like this anywhere near the study area,” Lynett said.

This may explain why a tsunami advisory, which usually arrives well in advance of arrival, was sent to California officials just hours before the event, he said.

Lynett was also surprised at how well behaved the tsunami was, lasting more than 24 hours until Sunday afternoon. The 2011 tsunami was mostly over within a day.

John Higgins, the Port Captain of Ventura, was among those frustrated by the incessant currents, trying to maintain order in the harbor, while continuing to answer normal calls for duty.

The first major surges occurred around 11 a.m., capsizing one of its patrol boats. The evening brought no respite: around 6 p.m., Higgins received a call from a 70-foot yacht and a 90-foot slab of the adjacent concrete dock had broken off and was floating in the harbor and out to sea.

Harbor tugs seized the yacht and a smaller boat that had been caught in the movement of the 70ft.

The next day, amid still rushing current, a boat outside the harbor reported a 10ft piece of the runaway concrete dock floating in the sea.

“It was overwhelming,” said Higgins, who leads an eight-person team.

Ventura was another city that was hit hard by the 2011 tsunami. Although the damage was worse then, more than two dozen docks were marred by the currents, Higgins said. The county had not yet completed the damage estimate. Replacing the capsized boat is expected to cost between $500,000 and $1 million, Higgins said.

Other locations that suffered minor damage to their harbors over the weekend included Moss Landing in Monterey County, Port San Luis in San Luis Obispo County, and Arena Cove in Mendocino County.

Throughout the past week, field crews with the state and federal government have been scattered along the shoreline to determine how high the waters have risen on Saturday and Sunday.

In Santa Cruz, some crews arrived to find Sharpie marks along some buildings that some in the harbor have scrawled to show the height of the floodwaters, said Nick Graehl of the California Geological Survey.

He and Bruce Jaffe of the US Geological Survey spent much of Thursday walking along the coast of Santa Cruz, analyzing a long line of dead sea lumber, trash and animals, such as a large crab that caught Jaffe’s attention, left on the shore by the currents of the tsunami.

Jaffe fears that with sea level rise caused by climate change, tsunamis have the potential to be worse, rising higher on the shore and causing more damage.

    A boat crosses a tsunami wave

A boat rides through a tsunami wave in Santa Cruz.

(Shmuel Thaler / Sentinel of Santa Cruz)

“As sea levels rise, the effects of tsunamis will get worse, simply because the wave is now rolling over a higher water level,” he said.

Holland MacLaurie, director of the Port of Santa Cruz, said he saw flooding in parts of the port that had never flooded in its 58-year history. Much of this has been attributed to the timing of high tide, which coincides with the tsunami. Sea level rise would aggravate such an incident.

“I can only imagine that in the future it will get worse or be more impacted by sea level rise,” MacLaurie said.

She hopes the port can prepare better with things like raising electronic transformers, building infrastructure higher on the shore, strengthening the piles that hold the docks in place and upgrading some docks.

But even with the upgrades, some things, like the dredge system, will still exist “at the mercy of the next tsunami,” MacLaurie said.

It’s an accepted reality of living and doing business along the Pacific Coast for some longtime residents like Stagnaro, 60, who took over the family business decades ago.

“You can’t choose your port,” he says. “And you can’t really just pick it up and go somewhere else.”

Just before sunset on Saturday, Stagnaro and his co-captain steered their two ships into port. They squeezed through a narrow gap between the disjointed cables of the damaged dredge and the pier, a pile of rocks.

With the current still swirling, they timed their movement between the waves and the rise and fall of sea level, sitting idle as the water raged, then, when there was a calm, tossing it back to its dock.

Stagnaro returned to shore to find his Toyota Tacoma engulfed in floodwaters. Neighboring docks were damaged. Some metal piles were bent. The power was out, forcing him to empty the meat from his freezer. He canceled all appointments on Sunday as the tsunami raged through the harbour.

The scene was tamer than in 2011, when Stagnaro camped overnight on his boat, armed with a long metal pole to push pieces of sunken boats and damaged docks from hitting his boat.

On Monday, the waters receded, power was restored, and Stagnaro was able to get his boats out again, this time for business.


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