As warnings spread that a tsunami traveling the Pacific would hit the West Coast on Friday, the Central Coast prepared for the worst while also waiting with fascination for a rare phenomenon to hit local shores.
Starting about 6 a.m., authorities evacuated the entire town of Avila Beach, as well as low-lying areas of Cambria, Cayucos, Morro Bay, Oceano, Pismo Beach and Port San Luis.
Beaches and near-shore campgrounds were emptied, and piers and harbors were off-limits through the day. Overall, it was one of the largest evacuations and closures in the county in memory.
Meanwhile, up and down the coastline, people gathered to watch the waves.
Local forecaster John Lindsey, who works for PG&E, said the tsunami produced a 6.3-foot surge about 9:20 a.m. and a 6.6-foot surge about 11:25 a.m. at Port San Luis — the largest seismic sea wave event ever recorded at the port.
The morning scene at the Five Cities Center along West Branch Street in Arroyo Grande — where hundreds of evacuees gathered — ranged from families genuinely concerned to those who weren’t fazed.
Businesses there opened their restrooms and some handed out free food and drinks to the evacuees, who were anxiously awaiting word about when they could go home.
The shopping center was among six evacuee staging areas authorities set up in San Luis Obispo County with the help of law enforcement, fire departments and the local American Red Cross chapter.
The centers were to close by 5 p.m., Red Cross officials said. Forty volunteers aided in the daylong effort.Authorities notified coastal-area residents about the evacuation by an automated telephone recording or a knock on the door by law enforcement officials or volunteers.
Others received panicked calls from friends or relatives to alert them of a tsunami warning.
“My daughter from Bakersfield was frantic,” said Linda Hall, who lives in the Hacienda Del Pismo Mobile Estates off Five Cities Drive in Pismo Beach. “I told her I’m cool as a cucumber.”
Hall arrived at the parking lot in front of Walmart before 8 a.m., finding it packed with cars and recreational vehicles.
By 2 p.m., the county lifted the evacuation order after getting clearance from the state Office of Emergency Services and planned to let people leave each staging area in phases, in hopes of avoiding traffic jams.
Awaiting the surge
In Morro Bay, hundreds of people clustered at various lookouts above the Embarcadero — which was closed — to watch the water surge in and out of the bay below. Some took pictures as others talked to loved ones on cell phones who were doing the same at other areas along the coast.
Many boat owners had moved their vessels in anticipation of the swells, but those crafts that remained in the water could be seen rising and falling dramatically with each surge.
Damage was minimal — the most extensive being a broken piling at the dock by Tidelands Park. A few boats along the city’s piers were reportedly damaged.
A floating dock also broke loose at the marina in Morro Bay State Park, and a boat was pushed onto the rocks there. Crews from the Coast Guard were working to remove it Friday.
In the Cambria area, despite stern warnings to evacuate and close access ways into North Coast parks and low-lying coastal areas, hundreds lined roads overlooking the shoreline, waiting for a tsunami surge that still hadn’t shown itself as the tsunami alert was due to expire.
Onlookers were shooed away from pullouts in low-lying areas along Highway 1 but allowed to stay on higher ground.
Waiting for the all-clear
At the Five Cities Center in Arroyo Grande, most evacuees wanted details. American Red Cross volunteers and other officials walked through the parking lot to give updates when available.
“We don’t know if it’s safe to go home or what to do,” said Dolly Licon of Santa Maria, who had been visiting Oceano.
In the morning, families and neighbors grouped together. Some were still in pajamas or wrapped in blankets. Many had pets in tow.
“My heart is still pumping,” said David Garza, 48, at about 8:30 a.m. “I’m still worried about my mom and my family.
“I grabbed some water, dog food and (the) dogs, and some blankets, and that’s about it,” added Garza, an Oceano resident.
Laurie Talbert, 59, of Oceano grabbed her Siamese cat, Frankie, as she rushed to the evacuation center. Her neighbor, Frank Voss, 46, packed his laptop and PlayStation game console but left his pet bird.
Glenda Neiswanger held her Maltese dog, Ginger, as she waited nervously for her husband to arrive in a separate car.
The couple had voluntarily evacuated from the Senior Mobile Home Park on the east side of Highway 1 in Pismo Beach after packing two cars with medications, food, blankets and water.
By early afternoon, some tension had eased and people began walking their dogs, riding bikes if they had them and shopping in nearby stores.
In the parking lot, Pete Giambalvo of Pismo Beach, a member of the South County Police Volunteers, was directing traffic.
His day started with a phone call at 3 a.m. A half-hour later, he and three other volunteers had gathered at the Pismo Beach Police Department before breaking off into teams to evacuate locals and tourists.
“We did stop one surfer,” Giambalvo said. “He said, ‘I go surfing every morning.’ I said, ‘Not this morning.’”
Carlos Rivera, who lives on Addie Street in Pismo Beach, woke up about 6:45 a.m. when police knocked on his door to evacuate him, his wife and two children.
His kids, students at Grover Beach Elementary School, did not attend school Friday, and Rivera, a cook at Old Juan’s Cantina in Oceano, did not make it to work. Rivera’s children, ages 6 and 8, were not the only students absent from school Friday.
Schools were not closed, but 1,030 students were absent from five elementary schools: Grover Beach, Grover Heights, Fairgrove, Oceano and Shell Beach, according to Jan Smith, the Lucia Mar Unified School District’s interim assistant superintendent of business.
Attendance was down 49 percent at Grover Beach Elementary, 48 percent at Oceano and 41 percent at Fairgrove.
Tribune staff writers Cynthia Lambert, Tonya Strickland, AnnMarie Cornejo and Kathe Tanner contributed to this report.