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1964 Tsunami Part 2: Tragedy, Destruction Hits Central Oregon Coast

Published 03/24/22 at 5:25 AM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

1964 Tsunami Part 2: Tragedy, Destruction Hits Central Oregon Coast

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(Newport, Oregon) – For a few days in early 1964, many in Lincoln County on the central Oregon coast were in a daze. A tsunami had torn through the area around midnight on March 27 of that year, generated by what is still the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America, happening up in Alaska. Seaside and Cannon Beach up north had gotten the worst of the tsunami in this state, the south coast had not received as much damage, but the central Oregon coast was hit fairly hard. It was here where four children died, after all. (Photo above of debris at Ona Beach, courtesy Lincoln County Historical Society)

This is part two in a series about the March 27, 1964 quake and subsequent tsunami coming from Alaska. Part 1 about the South Oregon coast is here 1964 Tsunami Part 1: Its Impact on S. Oregon Coast  Part 3 is here: 1964 Tsunami Part 3: Tearing Up Bridges, Homes on the N. Oregon Coast 

About midnight it was a clear night on this Good Friday. The moon was bathing the ocean water in a pretty light, many recalled. It was placid and beautiful. A family from Tacoma, Washington was camping on the beach at Moolack Beach in Newport: the husband, wife, the dog, and four kids.

And with no warning system in place, no one knew what was coming until it hit. Centered in Prince William Sound at Alaska, the quake sent a tsunami that damaged parts of the Washington coast, Oregon coast, and especially Crescent City, California. In this state, it was hit or miss. Some parts of the coastline received no damage or very little. Others, like in Yachats or Waldport, had entire walls taken out from oceanfront homes, and many docks went missing up and down Lincoln County.

Many beaches were absolutely covered in logs and debris, while others received nothing. Several areas had ocean water that was a deep brown from all the mud sucked into the sea. Other stretches of ocean were normal.

In Waldport's Alsea Bay, water suddenly receded drastically. It was described as looking as if it was “nearly sucked dry.” When the first surge came rushing in, it took out numerous docks and boats. Other surges followed for about 12 hours. In the following days, upside down hulls could be seen in the bay, along with someone's refrigerator.

Some streets in Waldport were smothered in logs as well, after tidal waves came rushing inland. Back in '64, no one yet used the word tsunami – it was still just known as a tidal wave.

The area between here and Yachats apparently received the worst damage on the central coast. Logs covered Highway 101 in spots, along with rocks, mud and tree limbs. It created a major road block for a time, and bulldozers had to come in and tear down the debris. According to newspaper reports, the Terry-A-While Motel and something then called the Sea and Sands Motel were inundated by rushing water. Massive logs tore through the walls of most oceanfront rooms there, leaving a truly unobstructed ocean view.

From South Beach down close to Yachats, numerous beaches were completely covered in logs.

There were reports of one man stepping out of his trailer near Yachats just as the big wave came in. He is, according to some newspaper reports, the fifth victim in all this, with his body never having been recovered.

It was predicted it would take months to clear the debris in the area.

Back then, Lincoln City was still a year from being named; at this time the area was comprised of a few little hamlets that included Delake, Taft and others. Delake was one of the hardest hit. There and in Depoe Bay, newspaper accounts wrote about ramps “leading up to docks that were no longer there.”

It was Newport's Beverly Beach that saw the biggest tragedy. Here, Tacoma's Monte and Rita McKenzie had settled into sleep inside a driftwood shelter they'd created, with their four kids - Ricky, 6, Louie, 8,
Bobby, 7, and Tammy, 3 years old.

About 11:30 they were awakened by a small wave that came in, nearly drowning them. After that struggle, they started running for the car up on the cliff, but they weren't fast enough. Rita was knocked over and sent yards down the beach. Father Monte was tossed up against a cliff. Each had kids in their arms when they were attacked by the wave, and both lost hold of all children.

The boy's body was found the following day. The other kids were never found. Sadly, a fifth child of theirs had died the year before in a freak fire accident.

Rita was knocked unconscious and stayed that way for a few days at a Corvallis hospital. For a brief time, she was wrung through a bit of a legal ringer by local authorities who tried to accuse her of some sort of negligence.

Part 3 of the 1964 tsunami series will focus on the north Oregon coast. 1964 Tsunami Part 3: Tearing Up Bridges, Homes on the N. Oregon Coast 

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Courtesy North Lincoln County History Museum, Lincoln City

The Ester Lee Motel in the '60s (courtesy Ester Lee Motel)

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