SOU professor publishes a book about the huge wave that struck this Northern California fishing, logging town more than 40 years ago


Dennis Powers' tsunami book was set for spring publication when the deadly earthquake and tsunami hit Southeast Asia in December.

Could this happen here? people asked the Southern Oregon University professor.

It already has, he said.

In Crescent City, Calif., on the night of March 27, 1964, waves from an earthquake off Alaska that registered 8.6 on the Richter scale rolled over the small fishing and logging town and devastated it. At least 11 people died.

Due to a perfect-storm-like confluence of geological factors, the town was hammered. More than &

36;5 million in aid in 1964 dollars poured in. Some structures were never replaced.
— Had the water come in the middle of the day, Powers says, the death toll would surely have been higher.

As in disasters, where timing is all, so it is in publishing.

Powers began work on The Raging Sea (Citadel Press, 304 pages, &

36;21.95) in 1990. But as the Asian tsunami dominated the news in January the publisher moved the publish date up six weeks ' to Tuesday ' and added a mass-market paperback due in March.

Powers, who teaches business at SOU, has been averaging two or three interviews a day with media from around the nation.

I've been on a national book tour before, he says, but I've never seen anything like this.

He is donating part of the book's proceeds to tsunami relief efforts, and both he and his editor have donated.

Powers read about the Crescent City disaster in 1964 as a senior at the University of Colorado and was fascinated. He found himself in proximity when he came to SOU decades later. In 1990, a friend introduced him to Bill Stamps, who owned a radio station in Crescent City. Stamps told stories and told Powers to talk to print shop owner Wally Griffin, who wrote Dark Disaster, a tsunami book available at Crescent City's museum.

Wally Griffin was Mr. Tsunami, Powers says. He opened everything. It was as if people were looking for somebody to write the book.

Life moved on. Powers left a law practice, got a job teaching at SOU, wrote other books ' and all the time the tsunami worked in his mind. It was a compelling story.

At 5:36 p.m. March 27, 1964, 14 miles beneath Alaska's Prince William Sound, the crust of southern Alaska shifted over the Pacific plate, releasing the energy of 12,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. The earth rumbled for three minutes.

The quake was the second largest ever recorded at the time, at 8.6 on the Richter scale (since surpassed a number of times). The scale is logarithmic; the seismic waves of a 9.0 quake like the one that caused the Southeast Asia tsunami are 10 times stronger than that of an 8.0 quake. The difference in energy is even greater.

Not all submarine earthquakes cause tsunamis. The key is a plate moving up, displacing seawater. In Southeast Asia as in the 1964 quake, the event was a thrust fault or vertical movement. An 8.1 magnitude quake between Australia and Antarctica on Dec. 23 didn't produce a tsunami because the plates moved sideways.

Waves instantly began fanning out from Prince William Sound for thousands of miles. One at Valdez Inlet was more than 200 feet high. Over the open ocean's depths, the waves moved nearly 600 mph.

Four-and-a-half hours later, the tsunami reached 2,000 miles south to tiny Crescent City ' it would be hardest hit. It created scenes that looked on a small scale much like those of the December tsunami in the East Indian Ocean. Sleeping residents found themselves awash in monstrous waves, tossed like corks under the light of a full moon.

Everything that happened on a larger scale in the East Indian Ocean, Powers says. From the water to the way some buildings deflected it, the surge over shallow areas, the short-term problems of food and water and sewage ' no electricity, no transportation, no banking, no nothing.

Today's tsunami warning system did not exist. Late that night a few reports had trickled down from Alaska and Washington, but the waves moved about as fast as the news. Most townspeople were home in bed. Others were partying in taverns. One woman in Crescent City heard about the tsunami when she talked on the phone to her husband, who was in Medford, and he said he'd heard something about a tidal wave on a Medford radio station.

I was struck by the uncommon courage of common people, Powers says.

Gary Clauson, 27 at the time, owned a grocery and part interest in a bar. He was celebrating his father's 54th birthday in the Long Branch Tavern near the beach with friends when a wave exploded over the bar. Clauson and a friend swam to save themselves, found a rowboat, saved two people, then rowed to the group huddled on the remains of the tavern, navigating horrific fuel fires and explosions.

But the currents withdrew as fast as they came, whisking Clausen to the Elk Creek Bridge where the boat was smashed, and Clausen and others were sucked into a culvert. He came up half-way through, knowing he was drowning. He couldn't go up, so he went down.

He whooshed through a break into the creek and was being carried out to sea, Powers says. He eventually swam back to shore. He said everything was surreal and bright and purple. He saw the hospital a mile away.

Clausen's parents' bodies were found the next morning. His story was picked up nationally by the media.

Witnesses told Powers they saw people swept away whose deaths weren't counted.

The death toll was lower than it may have been because the first two waves were small. The third (half an hour after the second) was 16 feet over the low tide line, and the fourth was 25 feet high. There is no way to predict which wave in a tsunami will be the big one.

Powers says several factors made for a bad night in the little fishing village.

One, an offshore reef, the Cobb Sea Mount, directed and intensified the waves. Two, the bay was in line with the direction of the waves. Three, the town always had problems because it slopes up with three rivers, the Klamath, the Elk and the Smith. The basins are magnets.

People showed up next morning with chain saws to begin clearing wreckage. Problems included security, feeding and clothing and housing people, medical attention. The city was on the cover of Life magazine.

It took two weeks to clear the streets and demolish dozens of buildings. The town was bankrupt. People didn't have tsunami insurance. Federal disaster money came in.

The Surf Hotel survived, but few old buildings are left in the tsunami zone. The old Citizen's Dock was torn down and rebuilt. Massive concrete tetrapods (visible today, they look something like a giant version of a child's toy jacks) were hauled into place on the breakwater. Progress was slow. Gone were the curio shops and 1800s homes with dormers and widow's walks. Some gave up and moved away.

Even now ... there are jagged, saw-toothed parts of our city that still have vacant lots where buildings used to be, Bill Peepe says. It was a bad thing. ...

Jim Hooper disagrees.

I don't believe for a moment that (Crescent City) had 'rustic' charm, as some say, he said. We needed to rebuild and we were given that opportunity.

Ground was broken in 1965 for the Tsunami Landing mall. It has a plaque commemorating the dead. The National Park Service built a modern office on two blocks donated by the city. The U.S. West Coast Tsunami Warning Center was established in Palmer, Alaska, in 1967.

Two generations have grown up without memories of boats smashing through buildings. Scientists say a big tsunami will come again.

The only question, Powers says, is when ' and who will suffer this time.