June 15, 2005
Stacy Finz, Leslie Fulbright, Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writers
San Francisco Chronicle
A 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the ocean floor Tuesday night about 90 miles southwest of Crescent City, sparking a short-lived tsunami warning across Northern California's coast and prompting a partial evacuation of the coastal town.
The quake struck at 7:50 p.m., and 24 minutes later the town's tsunami sirens began blaring to warn its 7,542 residents. David Duncan wasted no time locking up the Denny's on Fifth Street in Crescent City, where he's the manager. He wanted to get out and head to higher ground. When the quake struck, the restaurant's lights, which are suspended from ceiling chains, began to sway, he said.
"It didn't bother me a bit," Duncan said. "I've lived in California for 40 years and felt plenty of earthquakes."
But the tsunami warning was a whole different story.
Duncan said when the Del Norte County Sheriff's Department issued a warning for everyone to leave town and go 20 miles north to the Oregon border, his customers took their food to go and "split."
"The police are escorting people out of the city," said Paul Rice, a clerk at Ray's Food Place. "There is a line of cars headed out toward Oregon."
Jason Cantrall, a clerk at the Shop Smart Food Warehouse, was breathless.
"I'm trying to get people out right now," he said. "There was stuff falling off the shelves. I got word to evacuate the store. The sheriff's office said they were evacuating six to seven blocks."
By 8:59 p.m. the threat of a potential tsunami had waned, and residents began returning to their homes. Del Norte County Sheriff Dean Wilson estimated about 6,000 people had been evacuated.
It had been 18 years since Crescent City had activated the municipal alarm. They have one especially for tsunamis because 11 people were killed there in 1964 when the Alaska tsunami hit. It was the only fatal tidal wave in California's history.
On Tuesday, a branch of the National Weather Service issued a tsunami warning for the West Coast at 8:14 p.m. The weather service told Wilson he had between 30 and 40 minutes before the wave could hit. He wasn't taking any chances.
"Normally our evacuation plan is everything south of Ninth Street -- approximately 3,000 people," he said. "We also evacuate low-lying areas near Klamath and Smith Rivers -- about 1,000 people.
"The wave was supposed to arrive by 8:29, but there was no wave generation, so we waited 20 minutes and issued an all clear," he continued.
The tsunami- warning system has operated for decades in the Pacific Ocean, and the Hawaii center that issued Tuesday night's alert sends information to 26 nations. Experts say many of the more than 145,000 lives lost in the Dec. 26 southern Asia disaster could have been saved with even a few minutes advance notice.
Bay Area residents also girded for the possibility of a tidal wave while the warning was still in effect.
Curt Newsom, a battalion chief for the Tiburon Fire Protection District, said he hadn't gotten word of the tsunami warning until about seven minutes after it was suppose to hit the Bay Area. But he figured that dispatch had determined that the threat was weak at best and wasn't very concerned about the delay in getting the word. He said he had received 20 calls from residents who were worried about the potential tsunami. And 911 was lit up with people wondering if they should get out of town, he said.
"I think the media made a little too much of it," he said.
Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said late Tuesday that all fire crews had been put on notice of the warning in the evening but were notified that it had been canceled as of about 9:30 p.m.
"We made a voice announcement, instructing all our stations to open doors, '' she said about the brief warning, noting that electrical problems experienced in the 1989 earthquake had caused some doors to fail.
"It's a good reminder, and we'll be debriefing it tomorrow," she said. "Right now, it looks like we're back to local operations.''
Jan Greer, receptionist at the Cliff House near Ocean Beach, said the restaurant had been packed all night, warning or no warning.
"We have been getting updates from our customers," Greer said. "They are calling on the phone as well as the people who work here. They are calling and letting us know what's cooking.''
"We don't see anything," she said.
Lara Trupelli, owner of the Beach Chalet and Park Chalet on the Great Highway, evacuated both restaurants after receiving the warning.
"The restaurants were very full, but we handled it on the side of precaution," she said. "We didn't want our staff and our guests in potential danger."
About 350 people were evacuated, many leaving their dinners and their tabs behind.
"No one was panicking, but we basically told them to leave," Trupelli said.
Mendocino, Sonoma and Humboldt officials reported no damage from the quake and said that they had not issued a tsunami alert.
Staff writer Demian Bulwa contributed to this reportE-mail the writers at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.