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Tidal surges pummel port, sink boats

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Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Station Chetco River work quickly between surges to free boats trapped in broken docks and debris Friday. The Pilot/Scott Graves

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The crack of splintering docks, slamming boat hulls and exclamations of “My God!” and “Here it comes again!” filled the air as hundreds of people watched tsunami tidal surges pummel the Port of Brookings Harbor Friday.

“This has totally destroyed our port,” Port Commissioner Jim Relaford said Friday.

Tidal surges triggered by an 8.9 earthquake off the coast of the Japan began hitting the Southern Oregon Coast around 8:30 a.m. The surges grew stronger throughout the morning, with the largest estimated at nearly 8 feet. Each surge stopped the flow of the Chetco River and redirected its silt-filled water into the two boat basins at the Port of Brookings Harbor, causing boats and docks to rise, fall and twist with the currents.

As of 2 p.m., at least six boats had sunk in the port, four had been swept out to sea, and dozens more were damaged and adrift in the port’s two boat basins. More than a hundred people watched the destruction from surrounding cliffs, roads and the Chetco River bridge.

“The power of the ocean is amazing,” said a woman watching from Seacliff Terrace, across the Chetco River and about 50 feet above sea level. “I mean, look at it. The port doesn’t stand a chance.”

“I have never seen anything like this,” said Port Manager Ted Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald, port employees and members of the U.S. Coast Guard Chetco River Station took advantage of lulls between surges to scramble across broken sections of docks to secure recreation and commercial fishing vessels.

“Here comes another surge! Get out of there now!” yelled a Coast Guardsman overseeing the effort.

The men ran for safety, only to renew their efforts a few minutes later.

In the midst of the crisis, four people were reportedly swept out to sea by a surge as they walked on the beach at  Myer’s Creek north of Pistol  River. All were able to get out of the water, but a woman was injured and transported to Curry General Hospital for treatment. (See related story on this page.)

Shortly before noon, people trying to secure a commercial fishing boat discovered a man’s body inside. The man was later identified as Lyle David Jones, age unknown. Based on the initial investigation, the sheriff’s department determined his death was likely not related to the tsunami event and possibly from natural causes.

As work to save vessels continued, nearly a dozen sea lions seemed unfazed by the chaos around them. In fact, they appeared to enjoy riding the swirling, debris-clogged currents in the harbor as the tide ebbed and flowed. The mammal often barked at workers who came too near.

Around 2:45 p.m., the tsunami surges began to subside and the tsunami warning was downgraded to an advisory at 3:15 p.m.

The Japan earthquake occurred about 11 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. Curry County authorities were alerted to the possible tsunami threat shortly after midnight Friday. Curry County Sheriff John Bishop triggered tsunami sirens countywide at 4 a.m. as a precaution. Authorities and fire department volunteers began knocking on doors of homes in low lying areas along the coast.

Before sunrise, authorities blocked public access to the port of Brookings Harbor, allowing only the owners of fishing boats to secure their vessels or remove them from the water. Around 1 p.m., as tidal surges continued to arrive, several boat owners who wanted to save their vessels began to clash with authorities.

“If I want to get to my boat, you can’t stop me. You don’t have the authority,” shouted a frustrated fisherman.

“I understand where you guys are coming from,” said Cheston Evans, executive petty officer for the Coast Guard, addressing about 10 fisherman at the port. “But if you go down there and get in trouble, that will keep the rest of us from saving some of your boats.”

A few minutes later, all non-official personnel were ordered out of the port.

“The port manager has ordered that only emergency personnel are allowed,” Oregon State Trooper Jeff Johnson said at a roadblock on Lower Harbor Road near Highway 101.

State police and Curry County Sheriff’s deputies manned roadblocks at all access points to the harbor, turning back hundreds of people.

Meanwhile, as the tidal surges continued, loose boats and large sections of docks pinballed around the commercial boat basin, damaging and breaking free additional boats and docks.

Port and U.S. Coast Guard crews secured as many of the loose boats as possible, but several were obviously badly damaged or sunk within the basin.

“There are still about seven boats floating free,” Relaford said at 1:30 p.m.

Flotsam jammed the basin, including pilings, portions of floating docks and other unidentified material. Continuing surges turned the debris into battering rams, holing boats and creating a hazard for crews attempting to secure the mess.

The Haida, a 68-foot commercial fishing vessel, broke free of the dock. A crew was able to get on board and lower her anchor, but additional tsunami surges swung the huge vessel around like a tetherball, running over smaller boats in her path.

Several boats were sucked out of the basin and into the open ocean. At least one was grounded on the beach south of the port.

In the port, the Panda, a 48-foot wooden commercial fishing vessel, had lost a large portion of her bow. The entire side of another commercial vessel had been torn away.

At least three docks in the sport basin were also destroyed. Sailboats, yachts and sport fishing boats floated freely, striking one another, the docks and nearby piers.

A handful of boat owners who were able to get their vessels out of the port before the tsunamis hit are stranded at sea, with nowhere to go.

“They’re still out there, and they can’t come back here or to Crescent City,” Relaford said.

It wasn’t until about 5 p.m. that the U.S. Coast Guard started escorting ocean-bound boats back into the port. Boat captains said they were concerned about running out of gas and staying on the sea with an approaching storm bringing up 15 to 20 foot waves on Saturday.

It was too early to determine the extent of the damage as of Friday afternoon, said Relaford. It could be as long as six months before working docks could be installed, he said.

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