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Bad vibrations

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An 8.1 magnitude quake offshore of the Japanese island of Etorofu prompted a tsunami advisory in Hawaii and parts of the Pacific coastline, but, fearing a panic, the National Weather Service retracted the advisory at 6:45 a.m. on Nov. 18. A few hours later, a tidal surge struck California.

The only reported damage occurred in the northern harbor town of Crescent City, where a 6-foot tsunami moving at 30 mph caused at least $700,000 in damage and left three docks in disrepair. Staff of the Port San Luis Harbor District witnessed a smaller version of the anomaly the southernmost sighting of a seismic rogue wave emanating from the Etorofu quake.

Reports of a 3-foot tidal fluctuation near Point Buchon rolled in late in the afternoon of Nov. 18. Although well under the size threshold for a detectable tidal event and incapable of wreaking any serious havoc, the wave raised questions as to the wisdom of lifting the advisory.

Officials with the National Weather Service stated that they knew some kind of ripple would hit the coast as early as 9 a.m., but both Del Norte and San Luis Obispo counties complained that they received no updated notice whatsoever.

"We did receive our advisory notification immediately. We did not get any additional notifications until the surge hit," said Tracey Vardas of San Luis Obispo Emergency Services. "I don't know why. I'm asking the state a lot of questions."

Paul Whitmore, director of the National Weather Service's tsunami warning center, responded that the system only accounts for two potential actions: a relatively ineffectual advisory and a much-more-grave "warning," which requires the evacuation of coastal communities.

"It was clear, as the wave moved across the Pacific, that it wasn't going to pose any real threat," he said. "We didn't feel comfortable putting out a full warning."

Whitmore admitted that the wave in Crescent City proved larger than forecasters expected.
"The event showed us that there needs to be something between an advisory and warning," he said.

Incident reports indicate that the Crescent City surge was so strong it washed back harbor seals swimming at the break potentially posing a danger to any humans in the water.

On the Central Coast, rogue waves are not an uncommon occurrence. One claimed the life of Cal Poly freshman Enrique Jimenez on Sept. 22 while the student walked on the rocks at Spooner's Cove in Montaña De Oro.

However, the quicker-moving tidal surges, even at relatively low heights, bear more potential for destruction and bodily harm to surfers and beach-goers. Fortunately, no injuries resulted from this minor outburst of tsunamis along the California coast.

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