Residents along the West Coast were breathing a sigh of relief Wednesday after an earthquake 90 miles off shore didn't trigger the tsunami that officials initially feared might follow.
The 7.0 quake Tuesday night roiled the waters off the northern California coast, triggering a brief tsunami warning and the evacuation of thousands of residents from a community with a history of battling killer waves.
The quake struck at about 7:50 p.m. PT Tuesday about 90 miles southwest of the coastal community of Crescent City and 300 miles northwest of San Francisco, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
A tsunami warning was briefly in effect from the California-Mexico border north to Vancouver Island, Canada, but was called off about an hour after the quake hit. There were no reports of significant damage or injuries.
“It appears from the mechanism of the earthquake that this was a strike-slip event so the motion was horizontal, not the vertical displacement that typically leads to a tsunami,” said Ved Lekic, a seismologist at the University of California Seismographic Station in Berkeley.
The tsunami siren system in Crescent City was activated at 8:14 p.m. and continued for about 40 minutes, Del Norte County Sheriff Dean Wilson said. About 4,000 people — mostly from Crescent City — were evacuated. Wilson reported some minor traffic accidents but no injuries.
Xiojin Yuan, the owner of the beachfront Hampton Inn and Suites in Crescent City, said police quickly told him to evacuate the guests at the 53-room hotel. He stayed alone at the hotel to make sure no one was left behind.
“My car was the only one in the parking lot,” he said.
Crescent City was hit by the only known tsunami to cause deaths in the continental United States. Eleven people died and 29 city blocks were washed away there in 1964 by a tsunami spawned by a quake. Four people who were camping on a beach in Newport, Ore., also died.
Some of the evacuees Tuesday were tenants at the Surf Apartments, a senior housing complex that once was a hotel badly damaged by the 1964 tsunami. At least one resident, however, chose not to leave.
“I told them I’d stay with the ship,” Jack Wheeldon, 77, told The Daily Triplicate of Crescent City in Wednesday’s editions. “I stayed right in my room and watched my movie.”
But Mac McGuire, who headed the city’s emergency services department when the 1964 tsunami quake hit, said most “people were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. We knew there was an earthquake — we felt it.”
And although no major injuries were reported, the local sheriff said a few traffic accidents occurred as people tried to get away from low-lying areas.
Many telephone lines were jammed as worried locals called police, neighbors and others to figure out what was happening. "We probably received a couple hundred phone calls,” said Sgt. Bill Nova of the Eureka Police Department.
'Relatively common event'
Witnesses felt buildings shaking along the northern California coast.
“It was just a rolling sensation,” said Jim Andresen, a fire captain in Humboldt County who is stationed just outside Eureka. “I’ve felt worse in the past. It didn’t seem like it was that bad, lasted probably 15 seconds.”
The area hit is where the North American, Pacific Ocean and Juan de Fuca plates converge and has earthquakes of this magnitude about once a decade, said Lucy Jones, the scientist in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey office in Pasadena.
“This is a relatively common event,” Jones said. “It’s what is called a triple junction where three plates come together.”
The USGS reported many aftershocks in northern California in the hours after the initial quake but none significant.
Even though this earthquake did not lead to a tsunami, Jones warned that one similar to the devastating tsunami that hit Asia last December could happen in California.
The latest quake was similar in strength to the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta quake of 1989 that killed 40 people and caused about $6 billion dollars in structural damage in the Bay Area.
“But unlike Loma Prieta, this was located off shore so the damages were not heavy,” Lekic said.