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March Marks Two Dramatic But Grim Tsunamis in Oregon Coast History

Published 3/31/24 at 4:05 a.m.
B
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

March Marks Two Dramatic But Grim Tsunamis in Oregon Coast History

(Newport, Oregon) – March may be the rollicking weeks of spring break for many people in the Pacific Northwest, but there is an inherent somberness to the month, given what has happened here in the history of Oregon's shorelines. March is also about marking something terrible. (Photo of Seaside bridge knocked in '64, courtesy Seaside History Museum)

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Indeed, the sad anniversaries reach all the way to Japan and Alaska. It was on March 10 of 2011 when the Tōhoku Earthquake hit Japan and created a deadly tsunami there, but it also created a dangerous tsunami along the Oregon coast on March 11. Then, on March 27, this was the 60-year anniversary of the super destructive Good Friday Quake back in '64, which tore up much of Alaska but also laid waste to some part of the Oregon coast.

In this area, it killed four children camping on a beach at Newport.

In 2011, Oregon coastal residents had had a little practice running from tsunami alerts. This is, after all, the region where a mighty tsunami is expected some day with the Cascadia Subduction Zone sitting offshore, waiting to create the “big one.” A couple of tsunami alerts had gone out in the 2005 and 2009, causing mass evacuations, though they were soon rescinded. Not all of that went very well, but much was improved when a more serious alert arrived because of the quake in Japan.

Regional news media stayed on alert, with TV stations still broadcasting updates all night. One remarkable moment was on KGW Channel 8 as reporters talked live with a USGS scientist, who said they were starting to expect a tsunami wave some six feet high barreling into Seaside and Cannon Beach. You could see at least one newscaster turn white.

By 1 a.m. on March 11, the actual tsunami warning went out. This time, coastal folk began heading out, though many not until actual sirens went off. That differed upon location: Tillamook County didn't go fire off sirens until around 5 a.m.; others around 3 a.m. Some towns had vehicles driving around with bullhorns.

Highway 26 was jammed by the wee hours, and then ice on the summits became a problem for some. This incident had its share of dangers.


Siren in Cannon Beach / Oregon Coast Beach Connection

A little after 5 a.m., when a fairly small wave hit Hawaii, it was becoming evident not much was going to crash into this coastline. Around 7 a.m., a bit of a surge was detected on the north coast, but Port Orford's marina got hit with a series of waves that caused millions of dollars worth of damage.

A man in California did get swept away to his death, trying to have fun with the incoming wave.

Depoe Bay later got hit with a surge causing much damage. Looking Back: 10-Yr Anniversary of Tsunami Scare on Oregon Coast

All this was nothing compared to the great big one that slammed into Oregon back in '64. The magnitude 9.2 that shook off Alaska came to a coastline that had not much TV and radio coverage, and certainly no social media. Few understood they should evacuate. Cannon Beach and Seaside got the worst of it, ripping out bridges, tossing cars wantonly around neighborhoods and even moving whole houses around. Ironically, it was the damaged bridge that gave birth to the Cannon Beach Sand Castle Contest, which soon blossomed into a large-scale event.

The word “tsunami” wasn't even in the popular vernacular yet. Yet more of them followed for about 12 hours.

In Seaside, it was a young Tom Horning who was sleeping in his room along the Necanicum Estuary. He slept through the initial wave pummeling through his little cabin next to the main house.

“At 11:30, in comes the first tsunami surge, then withdraws, leaving sand, logs, detritus, dense foam, fish, worms, and shrimp when a few minutes earlier was grass and lawn,” Horning told Oregon Coast Beach Connection. “The dock, car, fencing, were swept away, but the cottage stayed put due to its piling foundations embedded into the sand soils. Apparently, no logs rammed the cottage, notwithstanding the 4 ft diameter driftwood all over the yard. My sister’s boyfriend kept my mother from wading through the surge to save us two boys.”

Property wasn't as badly damaged on the central coast, except for Yachats, where ocean-tossed logs pierced a couple of motels. However, it was Beverly Beach where the six-member McKenzie family were sleeping on the beach. The four kids were swept away, with only one body ever found, in spite of the efforts of parents to save them.

On the south coast, docks, boats and some homes were damaged, though some towns saw no destruction at all. MORE HISTORY PHOTOS BELOW

See 1964 Tsunami Part 1: Its Impact on S. Oregon Coast
-- 1964 Tsunami Part 2: Tragedy, Destruction Hits Central Oregon Coast
-- 1964 Tsunami Part 3: Tearing Up Bridges, Homes on the N. Oregon Coast

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Near Waldport in '64: tsunami debris piles up on 101

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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