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Tsunami Engulfs Japan, Threatens California

Moving at the speed of a jetliner, a tsunami in the western Pacific can reach the west coast of North America in less than 10 hours.

© NOAA

Aftershocks continue today across Japan, as the death toll continues to climb in the aftermath of yesterday’s 8.9 magnitude earthquake. It was the strongest trembler ever to strike the island nation during the 140 years that such records have been kept, and the 5th strongest quake ever recorded anywhere on earth.

As devastating as the quake was to both human life and property, however, the series of tsunami waves that it triggered may well have inflicted the most damage and loss of life. In some areas, the initial wave was reported to be 30 feet high. It traveled up to six miles inland, destroying everything in its path, as shown in the incredible aerial footage below. Fleets of large commercial fishing vessels were set adrift as if they were toys in a bathtub, as was a ship with 100 passengers aboard. Sendai Airport, north of Tokyo, was completely engulfed in water, creating a chaotic tangle of planes, vehicles and debris. 

The magnitude of the quake led to tsunami warnings throughout nearly the entire Pacific Rim, with damage being reported more than 4,000 miles away from the quake’s epicenter in northeast Japan. A Red Cross spokesperson was reported to have noted that the wave was literally taller than some South Pacific islands. No doubt it will be days, if not weeks, before the full extent of the carnage is fully known.

As the Japanese were starting to grasp the magnitude of destruction, Hawaiians were rushing to high ground in anticipation of the tsunami. Maui caught the brunt of the event with a seven-foot surge reported, but little damage and no deaths occurred.

California was also in the path of the giant tsunami, sending Bay Area residents to higher ground — or, for many boaters, out into the Bay. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center very accurately estimated the phenomenon’s arrival to the Bay, so quite a few people joined this reporter at Schoonmaker Point Marina’s beach to see what would happen. The initial surge made barely a ripple — even the feeding seagulls didn’t pay it any mind — but the following surges grew in speed and intensity. We all watched as several boats made their way out of Richardson Bay, presumably to keep their boats safe from the surge, but they hardly needed to. Docklines and snubbers performed flawlessly in the three-foot surge, and we’ve yet to hear of any damages, other than one small wayward dock in Richmond. (If you know of other tsunami damage in the Bay, please email LaDonna with details.) We’ve posted three videos on our Facebook page, including this one:

Other ports on the coast didn’t fare so well. Some of the worst tsunami damage occurred in Santa Cruz Harbor, where a number of boats were ripped from their berths and sent adrift. Connan Bradley, who has a small sailboat in the back harbor reports, "My girlfriend observed all the water being sucked out of the back bay, right down to the mud — a drop of at least 15 feet. As the docks and boats dropped to the mud, several boats got pinned temporarily under sections of the docks, and a number broke free as the incoming surge lifted them." Although surges continue in the narrow-mouthed harbor as we write this, the worst of the damage appears to have been at U dock, where insfrastructure was damaged substantially.

Many boats in Santa Cruz were damaged or destroyed by this morning’s tsunami.

© 2011 Connan Bradley

Crescent City was also hit hard, with at least 35 boats crushed and docks severely damaged. Though the damages will likely run into the millions, the surge did not breach the 20-ft breakwater that protects the rest of the city. One man has been reported missing after he and two buddies were washed off their feet while taking photos near the mouth of the Klamath River. The friends made it back to shore but a search is underway for the missing man.

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As we waited for the tsunami at Schoonmaker beach this morning, we heard several reports from locals that the body of a Sausalito boater was found yesterday afternoon floating near Clipper Yacht Harbor 1.
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