Remembering the 1964 Crescent City Tsunami: ‘Armageddon had come to Crescent City’

60 years ago, Crescent City was hit by a massive tsunami that destroyed its Downtown district and left 11 people dead.

The tsunami made landfall in the early hours of Good Friday morning, March 28th, 1964.

Four waves came ashore as part of the tsunami.

“The third wave was 16 feet high, and it came in, oh, about 1:00 or so, 1:15 a.m. The problem was that this was Easter weekend. This was Good Friday,” The Raging Sea author Dennis Powers said. “And so the businessmen and women then went racing down to get their stores in good shape.”

That would be a fatal mistake.

“Let’s say that your viewers. And we were inside – we own this this retail store, or it could be just about any type of store in there. And we look outside the bay window and all of a sudden we see this green water that’s about halfway up to our waist outside and the glass,” Powers said. “So then all of a sudden it’s totally filled with green. Well, then we know that something’s wrong. And then all of a sudden we see an object that crashes through that and this ocean comes pouring in,”

That is an example of what residents experience that morning. Then the fourth wave came and caused most of the devastation. Cars were piled onto other cars. Nearby homes became shells of their former self. Firsthand accounts recall the scary event as the waves withdrew from Crescent Beach.

“Peggy Koons, who wrote it. Unbelievable observation of the third and fourth wave, was saying that when that happened, she couldn’t believe it. She saw this mystical caverns and caves that were stretching out to the ocean that was empty, and all of a sudden this flat, dark mass was crashing in. And she just said it was total destruction,” Powers said. “And the next thing you knew is that the bulk fuel tanks, some 50,000 gallons were flamed, and said that really what we’ve seen was Armageddon had come to Crescent City.”

When the sun rose, the devastation and death toll became all too clear. One account tells of seven people who tried to escape from the fourth wave.

“And this group made the decision at that point to get into a boat and go across. So they got all the way across,” Cal Poly Humboldt professor Lori Dengler said. “They actually got up Elk Creek under the 101 bridge and had almost gotten to a place where they could get out when the drawdown started. It caught their boat, pulled it rapidly back towards the harbor. One person managed to get out. Six people were trapped in the boat as it hit all of the other debris at that 101 overpass. One of those six did manage to scramble out. Five people, sadly, perished,”

60 years later, reminders of the tsunami are found in Crescent City like a mural that details the devastation.

A self-guided walking tour tells the story of the tsunami’s impact.

There’s a Dolos near the visitor center that was supposed to keep water back, but the wave crashed over it.

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