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Tsunami devastates already-struggling California town

Sunken and damaged boats litter the boat basin at Crescent City, Calif., on Saturday. (Associated Press)
Sunken and damaged boats litter the boat basin at Crescent City, Calif., on Saturday. (Associated Press)

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. – Fishermen who had escaped to sea before the tsunami hit this struggling coastal town landed small loads of crab on Saturday, while crews surveyed damage and a family combed the beach for any sign of a man who was swept away a day ago as he photographed the waves.

“This harbor is the lifeblood of our community and the soul of our community,” Del Norte County Sheriff Dean Wilson said as he looked across what was left of the Crescent City boat basin, which last year saw landings of crab and fish worth $12.5 million. “The fishing industry is the identity and soul of this community, besides tourism.”

The region has never recovered from the loss of the timber industry in the 1980s and 1990s, and downturns in salmon fishing, said Wilson, who fished on his father’s boats as a young man.

“It’s going to be hard to recover here,” he said.

A series of powerful surges generated by the devastating earthquake in Japan arrived about 7:30 a.m. Friday and pounded the harbor through the day and night. Eight boats were believed sunk and dozens of others damaged; an unmanned sailboat sucked out of the harbor ran aground on the coast.

About 20 miles south, the family of a 25-year-old Oregon man combed the beach looking for signs of him. Authorities say Dustin Weber was swept away as he and two friends photographed the waves.

“He just didn’t respect the ocean and didn’t understand the tsunami,” said his father, Jon Weber. “The (first surge) hit about 7:30. It was the second wave that hit at 9:30 that got him.”

In Crescent City, crews geared up for the enormous task of assessing and fixing the damage to the port, where a sheen of oil floated in the basin. Seagulls feasted on mussels exposed by upended docks. About 80 percent of the docks that once sheltered 140 boats were gone.

“Our port is struggling,” said Kevin Wilson, manager of Nor-Cal Seafood Inc. “Since the last tsunami in ’06, they secured the funds to fix it, and this took away all the stuff they were gonna build off.”

About 350 miles south in Santa Cruz, the only other California harbor hard-hit by the waves, the commercial fishing industry was minimally affected. Most of the 850 boats were pleasure boats, including 60 that are lived in full-time.

With plastic foam and splintered piers still floating in the harbor, local officials in Brookings, Ore., said Saturday they’ll quickly begin seeking government aid to rebuild moorings for fishermen.

The tsunami that rolled in the day before from Japan severely damaged the commercial side of the harbor and inflicted a lesser amount of damage on the area for sport fishing and pleasure boats.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley toured the harbor Saturday, after which Curry County Chairman George Rhodes said the commissioners would meet today to start the work to get disaster aid. Typically, that involves disaster declarations that open up recovery programs.

Commercial fishing in the area has long struggled, and a handful of fishermen attended a press conference with Kitzhaber and Merkley, corralling aides at the conclusion to plead for federal help for the fishing industry.

The damage at Brookings came shortly after Kitzhaber and other state officials had a press conference in Portland on Friday morning, when it appeared that no major damage had been done along Oregon’s coast.

Residents told the Oregonian newspaper there were several surges, but the third was the one that did in the harbor, sinking or beaching seven vessels and ripping out docks.

Commercial fisherman Jim Cross said it came at about 11 a.m. His was one of about 60 commercial craft in the harbor, and he was not among the dozen who pulled their vessels out to sea as a precaution. His escaped with scratches, but others banged hard into each other.

“That was just sickening to watch and listen to,” Cross said, “all them boats crunching over each other.”