SLO County ports escape worst of tsunami

Damage in Morro Bay is estimated at $455,000

jhickey@thetribunenews.comMarch 15, 2011 

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

The tsunami that hit the West Coast on Friday morning, caused by the massive earthquake in Japan, did less damage locally than at other coastal communities rocked by the surge.

Starting Friday morning, Morro Bay Harbor experienced a series of “extreme tidal surges” that lasted through Sunday, and the unofficial estimate of damage totals $455,000, according to Eric Endersby, harbor operations manager for the city of Morro Bay.

Most of the damage was not to boats but to facilities, including a completely destroyed dock finger and piling, as well as four other damaged pilings.

In the back bay, one boat sank and an entire float broke loose.

Two of the harbors hardest hit by the tsunami — Santa Cruz Harbor and the one at Fort Bragg — reported $22.5 million and $4 million in damage, respectively.

Crescent City, where 16 vessels sank, is still working on its damage estimate.

Tsunami activity in Morro Bay consisted of nearly 8-foot swings in tidal height over 15 minute cycles. Under normal circumstances, the most extreme tides would move such a volume of water over a six-hour period, Dean Wendt, director at Cal Poly’s Center for Coastal Marine Sciences, said in a news release. “In just a few hours the bay ecosystem underwent as many high and low tides as it does normally during five or more days,” he said.

Witnesses estimated the water’s speed at around 12 to 16 mph, whereas tidal movements usually occur at around 3 mph, Endersby said.

“It was like filling up a bathtub,” Endersby said. “Water was pouring off areas of the back bay like waterfalls.”

“In terms of life safety outcomes, this was a great outcome” because no one was killed or injured, he said.

Fortunately, the tsunami’s initial arrival coincided with a low tide in Morro Bay. “Had it arrived even a few hours later, we would have seen a much larger impact to our coastal towns and communities,” Poly’s Wendt said.

“We dodged a bullet,” said Endersby, because if the tsunami had begun at high tide, water surging into the harbor could have caused docks to float off pilings and sent boats drifting away.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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