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The Tsunami that hit Japan on Friday March 11 was devastating, the destruction beyond comprehension. No matter where you are on earth there is or will be a natural disaster du-jour. Some force of nature that will at some point change lives forever. These 100-year events (as they’re so often called) are forgotten as time goes by. Like childbirth, the memories of pain will ease with time, but not the lasting effects. A nearly overlooked part of the recent tsunami story was the destruction that it did to the small town of Crescent City, California. It was just a blip on the bigger page of news from Japan.

My son lives in Crescent City and when trying to describe the town, I usually tell people it is near the Avenue of Giants, the Redwood Forest, on California Coastal Highway 101 just a few miles south of Oregon. But more importantly it was the only city in North America to be badly hit in the 1964 Tsunami caused by the Alaskan Earthquake.

According to a recent NPR report, on Good Friday (March 27)1964, the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America struck Anchorage, Alaska. “Shifting tectonic plates displacing billions of tons of ocean water sent tsunami waves rushing at the speed of a jetliner down the coast of the Pacific Northwest. That tsunami struck several coastal communities, but its biggest punch was saved for Crescent City, Calif., a small (bustling) lumber and fishing town of about 3,000 residents just south of the Oregon border.”

The destruction done by the ‘64 Tsunami was incredible. Four fifty foot waves that reached near sonic speeds hurled buildings and boats across the town’s waterfront. Buildings destroyed and never replaced. The community was devastated. Emotionally and psychologically scarred, it has never really recovered. This past month tsunami waves swept 4 people out to sea in Crescent City and destroyed their inner harbor, but a sea wall built after the 1964 tsunami protected the remaining downtown area. And compared to Japan it was just a scratch. Still, the community of Crescent City will perhaps never recover from the trauma inflicted by that first tsunami. But they are still very lucky compared to the citizens of northern Japan. There’s perhaps a lesson to be learned from all this.

Put-in-Bay is not immune to disaster; countless severe storms have lashed our coastline and created short term flooding and damage. Catharine Hadley of the Port Clinton News Herald reported in February that the April flood of 1930, “A Flood to Remember” ravaged Port Clinton and the islands. The level of the Portage River then, was nearly 5 feet above normal. This storm was first reported in the April 18th, 1930 edition of the Republican Herald newspaper in a story titled “Flood Damage Estimated At Nearly $100,000!”. I bet adjusted for today’s rebuilding costs that would have been in the hundreds of millions.

While that storm left its scars, perhaps nothing still compares to the high water experienced here in the mid eighties. In fact according to the ODNR in June of 1986 Lake Erie reached its all time highest recorded level ever! Many islanders may recall the summer of ‘86 and the damage done. Because the Lake Erie watershed is protected from being used as an exportable water supply, the average lake water levels have remained fairly consistent from year to year. But that summer, Lake Erie rose nearly two feet above the average mean water level.

The road from downtown to the east end of the island was intermittently under water for most of the year. The Monument was often flooded and inaccessible except by boat or high waist boots. As late as December of that year, flooding persisted across the region. A family from Monroe County Michigan was photographed on a raft floating away from their home after a winter storm caused flooding and featured on the front page of the New York Times.

While there was no one single storm or event that caused that years’ flooding, high water managed to wreak havoc on all the islands for the better part of a year. The long-term ‘86 flood effects lasted for years, including mold and mildew damage, erosion and soil contamination, and even changes in our new home construction codes. It was a year of distress now forgotten. Perhaps because of the long slow lingering effects to our community, is exactly why it has been allowed to drift way from our collective consciousness memory.

Many disasters hit quickly, headlines today, gone tomorrow. What we don’t see is the aftermath and the slow recovery. Hopefully it will be some time again before we are a featured disaster. History, like our memory, dims unless the facts are retold or relived (like in Crescent City). We are lucky to have dodged major disaster here for 25 years. In the meanwhile the American Red Cross and many worthy humanitarian organizations are still accepting donations for Tsunami relief in Crescent City, the northern prefectures of Japan, the earthquake in Haiti, the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina…..The list is long; our memory often is not.

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