Port Director Ted Fitzgerald, left, fishermen Dick Laskey, middle, and Mike Wiley stand on one of dozens of new docks installed at the Port of Brookings Harbor since the March 11, 2011, tsunami struck. The Pilot/Jef Hatch
Brookings fisherman Richard Laskey can still hear the cracking and splintering of his beloved, 48-foot recreational boat, the Pegrin II, as larger vessels slammed into it at the Port of Brookings Harbor on Friday, March, 11, 2011.
He stood there, helpless, watching as tsunami waves spawned by the 9.2-magnitude Japanese earthquake some 5,000 miles away tore up docks, sank boats and carried the Pegrin II out to sea.
“I never went down to see it after it left the port. I never stepped aboard it again,” Laskey said.
The boat later washed ashore on a beach a quarter mile away. It was a total loss of $350,000 to $400,000, Laskey said. His other boat, the 26-foot FireFox, suffered minor damage.
From the experience, Laskey learned not keep a boat in an exposed area of the Port. Today, he has trouble just looking at pictures of the Pegrin II.
“It’s definitely affected me,” he said.
On Sunday, it will be one year to the day of the tsunami, which swept two people into the sea at Pistol River (they were rescued) and killed a man walking near the mouth of the Klamath River in Northern California.
By the time the tsunami surges ended that day, the ports of Crescent City and Brookings had suffered major damage. Today, both ports are rebuilding what was destroyed, but for some, such as Brookings commercial fisherman Mike Wiley, the tsunami still looms large in their lives.
“It was pretty much pandemonium at that time,” Wiley recalled.
At the height of the tsunami, Wiley was videotaping the surges when his 34-foot boat, ChristyLee, broke loose from a dock and was swept to sea.
“It was like watching a fire of your home,” he said. “You can’t do anything about it. You’re helpless. It’s just a real helpless feeling.”
For longtime sailors Marge and Glen Woodfin, of Brookings, losing their 90-foot classic schooner the Lions Whelp to the tsunami was like a death in the family.
“It was a sad day for us,” Marge said. “It was like losing a member of the family.”
“It had been almost a member of our family for 30 years,” Glen said.
The couple, who had lived on the boat for years and traveled around the world, sold the boat to another sailor a year before the tsunami struck. They were home watching television when they started receiving emails from friends telling them that the Lion’s Whelp had sunk.
They didn’t believe it, so they went down to the Port to see it for themselves.
“I think it’s sad, unfortunate,” Marge said this week. “We hated to see the end of that old boat. It had a lot of history.”
Tale of two ports
While both Brookings and Crescent City suffered major tsunami damage a year ago, the subsequent recovery efforts at both ports have taken slightly different paths.
Visitors to Crescent City Harbor this week will find a port that is a shadow of its former self, the surviving boats in the fleet crowding around a handful of new docks.
Emergency funds to repair and replace docks and other facilities have been hindered by state and federal bureaucracy. Crescent City’s port was one of three California ports to be damaged by the tsunami, while Brookings’ port was the only one in Oregon.
Still, the work completed so far is impressive: the removal of 61 pilings, the dredging of 83 barge-loads of silt deposited by the tsunami, and the repair of about 500 feet of protective rock slope, all at a cost of around $5.1 million.
“It’s been kind of a remarkable year for what we have accomplished since the tsunami,” Young said.
The harbor had about 80 slips available for the local commercial fishing fleet before the December start of crab season, which has been the most lucrative season many fishermen have ever had due to the high price of crab, Young said.
“I’m glad that we were a small part of that, and that we were able to provide a safe place for our crab fleet,” Young said, adding that there were no serious injuries this season. “We’ve had some big storms and the docks have held up.”
By comparison, visitors to the Port of Brookings Harbor will find a harbor bustling with fishing boat activity and shiny, new docks – looking much as it did pre-tsunami.
“To date a total of $4,725,213 has been expended toward these repairs, with the majority of tasks complete as of today’s date,” said Port Director Ted Fitzgerald.
He credits the port’s quick recovery to the fast actions of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, several state legislatures and Oregon’s congressional delegation.
“While permitting issues were problematic at times, progress was ongoing and steady, resulting in repairs being made in a very timely manner, compared to Crescent City,” Fitzgerald said.
“I’d like to thank Gov. Kitzhaber and his team, Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, Congressman Peter Defazio and Oregon legislators Wayne Kreiger and Jeff Kruse for all of their efforts,”
Since the tsunami, the Port of Brookings Harbor has made repairs using $6.6 million in both FEMA funding and a 75 percent state match.
The money was used for engineering, dredging, reconstruction of a destroyed seawall and repair and reconstruction of dock facilities in both the sport and commercial basins, Fitzgerald said. The work was done using both port employees and private contractors.
Installing a new seawall was delayed when excavation work uncovered what appeared to be an old Native American village. Representatives of the University of Oregon’s Historic Preservation Program and three different tribes visited the site and ultimately agreed on a work-around that would preserve the discoveries while allowing the seawall to be finished.
New docks, manufactured by Washington-based Bellingham Marine, were assembled and installed by port employees. The pilings were driven several months ago using a barge and crane, Fitzgerald said.
The remaining work includes restoring electric utilities to the new docks and dredging, which is scheduled for sometime in August, he said.
The tsunami, Fitzgerald said “it was kind of a gift” for the port, which had been struggling for years just to maintain existing facilities.
“Overall, the port has been vastly improved,” Fitzgerald said. “Really, we’ve been given a second chance. The tsunami put the port in a position to be a viable entity again.”
It will also be in a better position to survive another, similar-sized tsunami, he said.
“We’ve learned just how important it is to have well-maintained docks and have all the vessels in operating condition,” he said. “I’m confident we will weather another tsunami similar to the last one.”
Curry County Sheriff John Bishop agrees. He ordered the county’s system of tsunami sirens to sound at about 4 a.m. the day of the March 11 event.
Authorities from various city and county law enforcement agencies then spread out in low-lying residential areas along the coast, knocking on doors and notifying people of a voluntary evacuation plan.
“We can always fine-tune things, but, overall, the agencies all worked very well together,” Bishop said. “It’s better to have a little one so we can practice for the big one.”
One frustrating result of the tsunami was the number of people who couldn’t resist going down to the port or local beaches with hopes of witnessing the tsunami waves.
“It really taxes our manpower and ability to help, when that happens,” Bishop said. “I’m not sure we can find a fix for that. We’ll have to put some more work into education, explain how people should respond to tsunami sirens and where to go.”
Part of the problem was that the first tsunami waves arrived later than expected, leaving some people to think that it wasn’t going to happen.
U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 56 Commander Ken Range recalls the tsunami was forecast to happen at 8 a.m. Then 8:30 a.m., then 9 a.m.
“When it did happen, it was big,” he said.
Boat owner and Port of Brookings Harbor Commissioner Jim Relaford said he and others were lulled by the late arrival of waves.
“The thing that is most impressive to me is, the tsunami came in surges,” Relaford said. “It came in every five to 10 minutes. Port people were down on the boats trying to mitigate damage in between surges.”
People didn’t wait until it was over with, he said.
“That’s a pretty frightening experience,” he said.
Afterwards, there was a big pile of boats all over the place, from boats bouncing on top of each other and others washed out to sea, he said.
Crescent City recovery
Work at the Crescent City port has happened in part because of a special workforce assembled through a federal grant and donations. Debris has been cleared, damage has been repaired, new features have been added, the community has pulled together, and some 260 jobless residents have been trained and paid for their work.
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“I think the city, the community, the county and the harbor were very fortunate to have this workforce crew,” said Crescent City Administrator Gene Plazzo. “I’ve been in government a long time; I haven’t seen anything like this. It was the silver lining of the tsunami.”
“It turned out to be a real win-win partnership,” said Charles Slert, who was mayor when the tsunami struck and through the first months of Crescent City’s recovery effort.
The history of damage from tsunami events is well known in Crescent City, said Young. The last tsunami was a wave of less than a meter in 2006, still high enough to cause damage in the harbor, even though crews from the harbor staff, the U.S. Coast Guard and the sheriff’s office were all trying to pull boats and docks out of the water.
Doing that, they learned later, was a mistake.
“When it was all said and done, we had a debriefing with a geology professor, and she said very bluntly, ‘That was really stupid,’” said Young. ‘The best thing to do is get out of the way – to remember that you can replace things, but you can’t replace people.”
So when the news of a major earthquake in Japan triggered the March 11 tsunami warnings in the middle of the night, the emergency planning in Crescent City paid off.
“Everybody worked just like clockwork,” said Slert.
Del Norte County Administrator Jay Sarina echoes that memory. “It was well-coordinated, from a community standpoint. We had all these people from the city, fire department, police, whereever. The team itself worked so well; we had all of these people working side by side.”
“It was a great exercise for our emergency operations group,” said Eric Weir, the city’s utilities director. “It let us know how we were doing.”
Despite the worst fears, the damage from the March 2011 tsunami was confined to the harbor – in part because the highest tsunami waves arrived on low tide. “There was tremendous damage to the harbor, but it could have been a lot worse,” said Weir.
He was prepared, for example, to shut down Crescent City’s water and sewage treatment systems, if necessary.
“The water never got out of the boat basin,” says Young. “If those waves had come at high tide, it’s very likely that somebody would have died.”
But all the damage – chiefly to boats and docks – was severe, estimated at a total of $21 million. Debris that was swept out to sea started to wash up everywhere. An active commercial fishing fleet, as well as dozens of recreational boats, had nowhere to go.
Rural Human Services, a non-profit agency serving Crescent City with a variety of programs, quickly landed a $5 million emergency grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to help clean up and repair the damage, as well as hire those left jobless by the tsunami’s impact on the local economy.
The workers employed in the grant quickly became known simply as “the tsunami crews” by the community.
Slert said of the grant: “It absolutely was a huge impact.”
They started with clean-up. Dozens of dumpsters were loaded with debris and hauled away, according to Harbormaster Young. Crews hauled the damaged docks out of the harbor, and salvaged any useful hardware such as cleats and connectors.
Then came rebuilding. That included stripping down, cleaning up and then assembling the temporary docks that were brought in for the harbor – wooden docks from San Francisco and concrete ones from Brookings. They repaired and rebuilt the docks for the launch ramp.
“They got us to the point where we were ready for the Dec. 1 opening of crab season,” said Slert. “We had the potential for 90 slips ready; that was a major accomplishment.”
The reasons were both economic and for safety, explained Young, who said the West Coast Dungeness crabbing industry is the third most dangerous in the U.S., deadlier than “The Deadliest Catch” industry of television fame.
“One of the reasons for our goal was to give the guys a safe place to tie up. These guys fish until they just can’t fish anymore” because of storms or fatigue. “They need a safe place to moor their boats,” he said.
Other work at the harbor included rebuilding the weigh station and putting a roof on a building used by the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
“The harbor looks much better as a result,” said Young.
But, as with all construction work, there were times when there was no work for the tsunami crews at the harbor. Those times were turned into training opportunities with both the harbor and with other community agencies, especially the city and county.
Donations from Reader’s Digest, Walmart and Ace Hardware helped pay for the necessary materials, according to Slert.
Those donations “created the materials for the crews to move forward. They rebuilt the sport fishing dock, worked on several storage sheds at the docks, and put on miles of paint,” said Slert.
Other work was aimed at “mitigating the dangers” if and when a tsunami floods areas outside the boat basin, according to Jason Wiley, lead equipment operator for the city.
“The tsunami crews trimmed hundreds of trees and cleared acres of brush where safety was a concern,” said Wiley. “Our oceanfront safety was a concern.”
Because of those future concerns, the crews also built new sidewalks that will make evacuation of a local waterfront park easier and quicker.
Crescent City officials were impressed by two attitudes surrounding the tsunami impacts: the community support and the work ethic of the tsunami crews.
“They were all very glad; they felt very fortunate that they were able to go to work,” said Plazzo. “It was a boost to their ego.”
“The positives run the gamut,” added County Administrator Sarina, “from the pride to the training to the preparation for the next tsunami.
“We got through it, and there were some very positive things that came from it,” she said.
The next phase of construction for the new Crescent City harbor will prove more difficult because of a funding gap of at least $4.5 million, Young said.
To close the gap, the harbor is pursuing three different grant opportunities and working with some lending agencies, but, at this point, there’s no telling where the money will come from, Young said. Also, the contract for the Inner Boat Basin Reconstruction project cannot be awarded until the funding is in place.
“We’re well on our way to recovering, Young said. “It’s just this pesky money problem.”
In addition to the long-term funding shortfall of $4.5 million, the harbor will also need to secure an interim loan to cover the 10 percent of funding that will be retained by FEMA and Cal EMA until the project is completed. The loan will also cover the amount of cash flow shortage that will arise from delayed reimbursements from the emergency agencies, Young said.
“You get a huge cash flow crunch when you have a huge project,” Young said.
If the harbor finds the funds, then this summer almost half of the new permanent docks will be installed, roughly 100 remaining pilings will be removed and dredging in the outer boat basin will be completed. Temporary docks will continue to fill in for the docks not replaced this summer. The entire rebuilt harbor is slated to be completed before the start of the 2013-14 crab season.
“Even though this is a small community, when there’s a problem, it’s amazing the amount of talent that’s out there in this community.” Young said. “I can’t emphasize how much of a team effort this has been. Nobody recovers from something like this by themselves.”
— The Del Norte Triplicate news staff contributed to this story.