Governor Declares Local Emergency for Morro Bay following Japan Earthquake

Harbor Patrol and Morro Bay Commercial Fisherman's Organization president Jeremiah O'Brien survey tsunami damage, in progress | Photo by Barbara Stickel
Harbor Patrol and Morro Bay Commercial Fisherman's Organization president Jeremiah O'Brien survey tsunami damage, in progress | Photo by Barbara Stickel

Governor Jerry Brown last week proclaimed a local emergency for the city of Morro Bay, one of California's coastal cities that experienced a series of "extreme tidal surges" on Friday, March 11 after a large earthquake in Japan.

In the early morning hours just prior to the arrival of the tsunami, boat owners were at the city's harbor, moving their boats out to the safety of the sea, or lashing extra lines to secure boats to familiar pilings and docks. According to a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard station in Morro Bay, tsunami warnings from the National Weather Service and other central communication stations were received by their station before 1:00 a.m. Immediately, local warnings were issued through marine radio channels, local TV and radio, internet social networks, and telephone calls by local boat operators to other boat operators.

This warning system proved to be efficient. Only one small boat was lost in the "back bay" area of Morro Bay.

Amateur video of the tidal surges

The Morro Bay tidal surges lasted through the following Monday. At some points there were nearly 8-foot tidal swings every 15 minutes. "This volume of water movement would normally be seen under our most extreme tides and over a six hour period," explained Dean Wendt, Director of the Cal Poly Center for Coastal Marine Sciences in nearby San Luis Obispo. "In just a few hours the bay ecosystem underwent as many high and low tides as it does normally during 5 or more days. Observing this movement of water firsthand was both exciting and frightening."

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Located on Highway 1, Morro Bay is home to over 10,000 people. Its most notable feature is a huge volcanic mass of blue granite dubbed Morro Rock, a name given by explorer Juan Cabrillo in 1542 when he sailed up the the coast of then-named Alta California. According to some local historians the rock was named for the turbans worn by the Moors of Northern Africa.

By mid-20th century Morro Bay became an active fishing village on California's Central Coast. Commercial fishing thrived for three decades and the city became the home port for many smaller fishing vessels. It had all of the elements of a seafood processing center, the scent of the sea and fish, sea mammals noisily begging for snacks, and a tough sailor's bar where the wrong word or wrong look could result in a facial bruise and mild concussion. Salmon runs were common in spring and summer and Albacore in the early autumn, while rock cod was available year round. Technology modernized fishing methods creating an abundance of success and a path for the arrival of more fishermen, but eventually all of the west coast fisheries became stressed and eventually slowed down or shut down.

Tidal Height Measurements (click here to enlarge) | Image by CalPoly

Barbara Stickel, one of the current local commercial fisherman, and curator of "The Catch, Stories of Local Fisherman" a display at the History Center of San Luis Obispo County, observed the recent tidal surges. "It was fortunate that the tsunami struck Morro Bay at low tide, if there was a high tide many of the boats would have broken away from the pilings and damages would have been much greater," she said. "It looks like one dock will have to be completely rebuilt and many pilings will have to be removed and re-set."

Unofficial estimates of damage costs are $455,000, according to the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

One week later Morro Bay returned to normal activity. Boats returned from sea to other dockings, and prepared for a winter storm. And, regardless of the rain, tourists came to see the effects of the tsunami.

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