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Friday, March 11, 2011

Tsunami Doesn't Affect San Francisco: An Eyewitness Account

Posted By on Fri, Mar 11, 2011 at 12:23 PM

click to enlarge Ocean Beach
  • Ocean Beach

The call came just before 7 a.m. A concerned friend, who has lived in San Francisco less than a year, wanted to alert me that a deadly tsunami was headed my way.

After devastating the northern coast of Japan, the tsunami -- generated by a staggering 8.9-magnitude earthquake in the Pacific Ocean -- was headed for California, where it would presumably strike just a few blocks from my home in the Outer Richmond.

I sighed as I got off the phone and put some coffee on to boil. As a lifelong resident of the central and northern California coast, I've been appropriately desensitized to tsunami alerts. TV news reporters love them, but to many native Californians, they're something shy of a joke. The only Californian town to suffer heavy damage from a tsunami in recent memory is Crescent City, and that was in 1964. (The Del Norte County hamlet's unusual geography contributes to its vulnerability to big waves.)

Still, if this was going to be the real deal, I didn't want to miss it. So I threw on a sweater and did the opposite of what the city's public safety officials, who had already closed off sections of the Great Highway and evacuated Ocean Beach, were counseling.

I walked down to the water, arriving at 8 a.m. -- the time the tsunami was predicted to arrive.

I wasn't alone. The crowd lining the promenade above Ocean Beach was more reminiscent of a whale-watching expedition than a group nervously awaiting a natural disaster. Elderly bicyclists, young hipsters in hungover disarray, and even a small group dressed up for the occasion like Maurice Sendak's monsters in Where the Wild Things Are thronged amid television news vans, reporters, and photographers.

The Wild Things seemed a bit gauche -- trivializing the horror show that had unfolded earlier in Japan, where the current death toll from the earthquake and tsunami stands at more than 300. Then again, weren't we all trivializing what had happened with our mere presence?

I wondered what they would have made of us in Japan, this group of insular Northern Californians treating yet another tragedy unlikely to reach our shores as a source of amusement.

To make a long story short, nothing happened.

The waves looked like they do on an average choppy morning. The only action that came was from police officers stationed along the Great Highway screaming at the occasional pedestrian who had wandered onto the sands.

After about half an hour, I walked up Fulton Street and caught the 5 bus to work. As we were passing through the Western Addition, a young guy in an ugly blazer next to me made a joke about doing "The Wave."

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Peter Jamison


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