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Tsunami at Cowell'sMy first judgment was, “this tsunami is a no-show. Here it is 8:00 a.m. and I don’t see any tsunami. More media hype,” I mutter. It was my niece that first told me the news with a call at 7:00 that I dozed through.

“Are you evacuating?” was her message when I got up. That was after I cut off another message from the National Emergency Center. “Yeah right, selling tickets to some emergency,” I mutter some more.

Looking out my window to Cowell’s Beach and the ocean, things looked pretty normal, except that the Wharf was closed, which is so rare as to be impossible. Half a dozen patrol cars and fire trucks, with just as many broad shoulders turned seaward, confirmed it. Checking the web as I tossed breakfast together, I saw the Emergency Center wasn’t selling tickets after all. There was a voluntary evacuation order in place for the coast. The 8.9 tsunami bad news in Japan was delivering to our beaches now, reminding that oceans don’t separate the continents.

But at just after 8:00 it was a normal morning, though there seemed to be a high tide when the tables forecast a low tide. Surfers stitched the wave-slopes, zipping white trails.

And by 8:20 I froze in mid-forkful. Something was wrong with this picture. It wasn’t a high tide; it was low tide, minus tide, lower than minus, no tide, no water, but lots of beach, exposed rocks, seaweed clumps glistening in the sun. I found myself doing what anybody does when confronted with the unfathomable: I pointed, stammered, explained away what I couldn’t possibly know, and stared, pointed. And ate some more.

As the morning lengthened, I learned events were unfolding in the nature of a riot, where one block snoozes with library boredom, while the next is chaos. The first touch of a tsunami is not an attack, but a retreat. The first tendrils of the tsunami’s reach were peeling back the shallows just then. As Jon, the Wharf Supervisor--who was one set of those broad shoulders--told me later, “I first noticed the change in the water drawing down in Collins Cove about 8:20, 8:30, then I had to go to a meeting.”

Just a few blocks away at the Harbor, the riot was in play. The confines of the channel acted as a force multiplier and water was leaving en masse and taking things with it, such as boats heavier than their tie-ropes were strong. The return was determined, manic, bringing boats back and uprooting docks on the way.

Soon the kaleidoscope changed again: new picture mosaic: high tide, not low tide, super high tide; too high to be possible so soon. A few blocks away the Harbor was in scrimmage, with one destruction after another. A new malevolent surge roiled in, punching a line of boats--one by one--as if they were ejection seats.

From my breakfast view, I thought it was over, that was the tsunami, and I could brag that I saw it; another feather in the cap of beach living! And then after awhile, the submerged rocks and kelp grew visible again, the beach widened, shorebirds waded after the retreat. Even the direction of the retreat grew defined. The water didn’t just go out; it exited to the southeast, not towards Steamer’s Lane at the point, but to Moss Landing. The water changed quality to a panicky frantic boil and popping. It sizzled. Low-tide surf breaks popped up in formation, prancing in. Soon it was a minus tide all over again. And in another hour, or even half hour, it was high tide all over. The Harbor nearby was a destruction derby of boats, docks, debris.

The Wharf, in contrast, was entirely at ease, accommodating the heave and roil through its four thousand legs. Though this throw and retreat became a pattern repeating hour after hour into the day, not a piling was lost. The only losses were sales on a closed Wharf. Winter storming and breaking swells take a greater toll on Wharf pilings than this tsunami event. Even the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 scarcely blipped on the Wharf. The water main pipe broke, but was fixed by the next day.

But who could know what dangers loomed? The power of wave energy through water is not trifling; it is monstrous. Video clips of the Japan tsunami lumbering ashore are numbing. Tsunami power leaves physics behind and lurches on taking up dirt and morphing into a viscous tactile half-liquid half-solid invasion. Mere buildings, bridges, space, gravity do not dampen its drive. Its energy is unworldly, irrational, continuing.

The surprise of this event in Santa Cruz to me was that it was not a one-time finality, but a perpetual repeating. We received energy waves, not a wave. With each continuing hour, it seemed to me the throws of tide became more regular, until by 1:00 when I left to go to work, three complete tidal changes were occurring every hour. It’s probably always like that.

Tsunami Character Flaws

Why does the water pull out first? Why not just in, like surf?

Wave energy through the ocean, whether generated by wind in the middle, or by earthquakes on the far side or the bottom, is not a straight throw. It forms into a circle or cell on a roll. The cell touches the surface and the bottom of the sea as it travel. When a cell hase an average ocean depth of 10,000 feet or so to move in, it travels very fast, 500 or more miles an hour fast. As it reaches a continent, things trip it up. The bottom trips it up, the surface lets it slope, and it slows.

The leading edge of a wave coming ashore is underwater, not above. At first it is invisible. The cell moves forward as its perimeter cranks downward, and back. It takes things with it, like the water. That’s why you will find it harder to swim or paddle to shore as a swell approaches. As the cell of traveling energy runs out of room on the bottom, it lifts. The cell rolls on in the air until it cannot hold the water, and the water falls forward. We have surf in Santa Cruz. And for a surfing wave, this energy sighs out on the beach, finally, to slide back.

A tsunami keeps rolling. The metaphor becomes not so much a rolling cell, but a military tank tread. In the water, the tread circles. As it reaches the slope of land, it climbs. As it reaches the beach, it lumbers on. The energy tread brings along the water with it, and can lift objects in suspension beyond common sense: buildings, bridges, vehicles, more.


This seems to be the area’s first tsunami evacuation order/warning, but not the first tsunami warning we ever experienced. Wharf Supervisor Jon Bombaci recalls a dozen or so in his twenty years or more working on the Wharf. I remember a warning in February last year for a tsunami that raised things a foot or so, but caused no special damage. Walking the levee at that moment, I remember the wave and water character at the harbor entrance taking on that same panicky-frantic surface sub-boil that I noticed with this event. It’s as if the energy seeks to leap out of its element.

The largest tsunami in any local memory is described by Robert Stagnaro at Gilda’s Restaurant. He tells of a “fourteen foot tidal wave” on April 1st in 1946. The water’s first retreat to a minus tide showed bare sand all the way to Gilda’s at the center of the half-mile long Wharf. Nothing or next to nothing was known about tidal waves in that period and the strange withdrawing of the surf zone so far proved fatally attractive to a few people, he says, who wandered to its edge. The ensuing lurch of the returning tidal throw caught them in final surprise. That surge lifted moored boats above their anchor lengths and deposited them on the beach, or even Beach Street. “That was our first ever experience with a tidal wave,” he recounts. 

“Did it break over the Wharf?” I asked of him in the interview several years ago about the 1946 event.

“No. It did not break over the Wharf. We thought a tidal wave would be a breaking wave, but it’s not. It’s just a rise in the water.”

I asked him if his father or his grandfather, Cottardo Stagnaro, ever talked about a tidal wave in their family’s 100-plus years of history in this area. “No. No, never talked about a tidal wave.”

Last updated: 3/22/2011 10:18:30 AM