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How a Deadly Tsunami and Mysterious Boat United Two Cities Oceans Apart

Why has Crescent City, a tranquil fishing town in northern California — with the majestic redwoods in its backyard and the Pacific at its doorstep — been repeatedly hit by tsunamis? It’s not simply a case of bad luck.

A seemingly perfect storm of factors has resulted in two major tsunami disasters. On Good Friday, 1964, a massive 9.2 earthquake in Alaska triggered a 21-foot swell in Crescent City. The tidal wave flooded the city, killing twelve people and destroying 289 businesses and homes. The tsunami wrecked cars in downtown Crescent City, tossed boats like toys and decimated the harbor. The town, whose main business is fishing, suffered huge losses in livelihood.

The second major tsunami struck on Friday, March 11, 2011, when the 8.9-magnitude Tohoku earthquake hit Japan, unleashing a tsunami and killing, injuring and displacing thousands of people. When that tsunami crossed the ocean to the California coast, it killed one man at the mouth of the Klamath River and injured three others. In Crescent City, thanks to a well-coordinated evacuation of the town and harbor, there were no other casualties, and most of the fishing boats were spared, having sailed to safer waters. However, the tsunami destroyed the harbor, and the city’s all-important fishing industry was once again hard hit.

But these weren’t the only tsunamis that Crescent City has endured. According to Lori Dengler, Emeritus Professor of Geology at Humboldt State University and a researcher of seismology for more than 30 years, the 2011 tsunami “was the 34th or 35th tsunami to hit Crescent City in…78 years.”

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3/28/1964-Crescent City, CA- Unidentified man (l) stands amid debris-ridden city where martial law was declared after tremendous tidal waves from the Anchorage, Alaska earthquake destroyed 150 businesses and killed at least nine persons. Twelve-foot tidal
3/28/1964 Crescent City, CA - Unidentified man (l) stands amid debris-ridden city where martial law was declared after tremendous tidal waves from the Anchorage, Alaska earthquake destroyed 150 businesses and killed at least nine persons. Twelve-foot tidal waves from the quake March 28 paralyzed the town by knocking out its power and starting fires. One fire in the small city, located some 200 miles north of San Francisco, ignited five oil tanks.| Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Building a Safer Harbor

What exactly makes Crescent City a tsunami magnet? Dengler explains in an interview with the L.A. Times that the reasons include the the type of ocean floor off its coast, the bowl shape of the Continental Shelf and the city harbor's orientation. "Tsunami waves get trapped in the small south-facing harbor and continue to oscillate," Dengler explains.

There was nothing that Crescent City could do about the sea floor, the Continental Shelf, or the city’s elevation, but they could, and did, do something about the harbor. Consequently, the city raised funds for a massive $50 million rebuild from the 2011 devastation, and in 2014, Crescent City unveiled its state-of-the-art tsunami-resistant harbor. According to KQED, the new fishing port added "nearly 100 more pilings (the posts that hold the floating docks in place)... but the key new feature is a 400-foot tsunami attenuator dock, designed to withstand a tsunami of the intensity typically seen only twice in a century. …that translates roughly to a 12 to 15-foot wave.”

Aerial view of the breakwaters and harbor at Crescent City, Del Norte County, Califiornia,
Aerial view of the breakwaters and harbor at Crescent City, Del Norte County, California, circa 2007 or before | Wikipedia

In addition to Crescent City’s tsunami-resistant harbor, there is a state-of-the-art warning system in place called Everbridge, which allows "anyone to register up to five addresses and have alerts sent to their cell phone, home phones or email addresses.” Before that system is activated, however, Del Norte County’s Office of Emergency Services tracks seismic events moment by moment to determine the level of severity.

Although no harbor can be tsunami-proof — at least not with the technology available to us at this point in history — the citizens of Crescent City have a stronger harbor than ever. The tragedies at Crescent City not only led to better protective measures, but also led the city to forge a bond with a Japanese city that was also a victim of the 2011 tsunami disaster. 

Kamome boat
Kamome, as found in 2013 | Kamome the Boat of Hope Facebook Page
Kamome boat
Kamome, as found in 2013 | Kamome the Boat of Hope Facebook Page

A Mysterious Boat Washes Ashore

On April 7, 2013, which was more than two years after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, a boat with no passengers and with Japanese writing on its barnacle-encrusted hull appeared on the shores of Crescent City.

Intrigued by this mysterious arrival, Crescent City enlisted the aid of Professor Lori Dengler, who found out the name and provenance of the phantom boat. She learned that it belonged to a high school in a small Japanese city called Rikuzentakata. The last time the boat, which is named Kamome, had been seen by its owners was when it was washed out to sea during the devastating 2011 tsunami.

But this was now 2013 — which meant that Kamome had taken a journey of more than two years across the Pacific Ocean until it washed up in Crescent City.

A group of high school students in Crescent City resolved to clean up Kamome and return it to its rightful owners, and they did so with the help of other members of the community, including businesses and city officials. They cleaned it up and shipped it back to Rikuzentakata.

But the the story did not end there. The community's act represented much more than the recovery of a lost boat. After so much devastation and loss to both cities, the citizens of Rikuzentakata were deeply moved by the discovery of something that had been presumably lost forever and which then reappeared, intact, two whole years later. 

A Bond Between Two Worlds, Oceans Apart

A bond was then forged between Crescent City and Rikuzentakata. Not only had both cities endured devastation from the 2011 tsunami, but they also discovered other similarities between them, including that fishing is vital to both cities.

Further, Takata High School students invited Del Norte High School students for a group visit, which was such a success that they in turn visited their new friends the following year. The two cities decided to formalize their friendship with a sister city pact.

In April 2018, the city of Rikuzentakata send a delegation to Crescent City for a signing celebration. At the signing, Samantha Fuller, president of the Japan Club at Del Norte High school, talked about her 2016 trip to Rikuzentakata.

“The citizens of Rikuzentakata showed me the meaning of optimism, which I’ve been able to apply to my own life,” she explained. “Despite these people losing an entire community, they were overall more thankful for what they have, opposed to being angry for what they don’t have.”

On June 15, 2018, Crescent City’s own delegation went to ­­­­­­­Rikuzentakata for a signing ceremony. For the Crescent City delegation, which included the city’s fire chief and the county’s Health and Human Service director, the visit was not only a cultural exchange, but also an opportunity to share strategies about responding and preparing for disasters. "Their water treatment plant was completely destroyed," reported Eric Wier, City Manager of Crescent City and a member of the delegation, "I want to know what they did and how they got water to people.”“

For those who do not have Rikuzentakata or Crescent City in their travel plans, there is a picture book that tells the story of the boat and the friendship it sparked between the two cities. Entitled “The Extraordinary Voyage of Kamome,” the bilingual book (in English and Japanese) is suitable for adults as well as children. It was written by Professor Lori Dengler and Amya Miller and is illustrated by Amy Uyeki. All proceeds go to the student exchange program between the two cities.

“This little boat and the kindness of people in both Crescent City and Rikuzentakata has brought something beautiful out of tragedy…," Dengler adds, "but the most important legacy of Kamome is yet to come, as people on both sides of the Pacific continue to learn about each other and embrace how much we have in common.”

Both cities had witnessed, through this intrepid little boat, a beacon of hope and a symbol of the humanity that unites us all.

Mayor Inscore leading a toast with sake from Rikuzentakata
A ceremony to commemorate the establishment of the Crescent City/Del Norte County-Rikuzentakata sister city relationship, held at the Crescent City Cultural Center. Mayor Inscore leading a toast with sake from Rikuzentakata. | Consulate General of Japan San Francisco Facebook Page

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