Santa Cruz Harbor on Jan. 15, 2022.
Waves crash near the lighthouse near Santa Cruz Harbor on Jan. 15, 2022.
(Mark Woodward / For Lookout Santa Cruz )
Weather

Volcanic eruption creates tsunami-related flooding in Santa Cruz

A volcanic eruption near New Zealand caused massive waves to inundate the island nation of Tonga and continue on to the West Coast. The National Weather Service issued an advisory and local officials are urging caution. The Santa Cruz Harbor area saw significant flooding and an early-morning surfing contest had to be canceled.

A volcanic eruption in the South Pacific Saturday created a series of massive waves that inundated the island nation of Tonga and caused alarms up and down the West Coast, including in Santa Cruz.

Related flooding swamped a number of cars in Santa Cruz Harbor, forced people on boats to scramble to safety and caused the cancellation of an early-morning surfing contest. Additionally, Beach Street from the wharf to Third Street was closed due to flooding for several hours.

And in Capitola, the surge made Soquel Creek flow backwards for a time.

Injuries and rescues

  • Cal Fire CZU reported about 1 p.m. that two people who were fishing at San Gregorio State Beach were swept into the water. Though both got out on their own, both were taken to the hospital, one by ground and one by LifeFlight. Both are recovering and in stable condition.
  • Santa Cruz County lifeguards were called on to rescue several swimmers overwhelmed by the surge. They sped out of the Small Craft Harbor in the late morning on personal watercraft.

Flooding in Santa Cruz Harbor

A bit before 8 a.m., Santa Cruz Sheriff’s deputies created a command center at Santa Cruz Harbor.

Spokesperson Ashley Keehn said that only the docks were evacuated. She said beaches under county jurisdiction were open, but officials advised people to stay out of the water due to the possibility of strong currents.

However, Santa Cruz Police announced city beaches would be off-limits until at least 2 p.m., though the wharf would remain open. The Boardwalk closed for the day.

Jason Steinberg said deputies woke him up early Saturday and asked him to leave his boat due to the rising tide. He said he left to grab a cup of coffee, thinking the danger would be passed by the time he returned, but as of late morning he hadn’t been allowed back.

“Hopefully this will be done soon and I can get back to my boat,” he said.

Steinberg said the biggest worry for him and other boat owners is that the surging waves will cause the docks to get loose.

“That would be the worst-case scenario, so as long as those hold up, we’re good,” he said.

Surfing contest initially goes forward — but has to stop

A high school surf contest scheduled for Pleasure Point pushed forward at daybreak despite the unpredictability of the impending tsunami after organizers consulted with local lifeguards. The contest had 120 kids from local high schools such as Aptos and Soquel and some from as far away as Marin and Half Moon Bay.

“It was sort of a wait and see and the conditions were okay to start,” said Santa Cruz Scholastic Surf League director Marc Susskind. “But then it got really weird. It became clear it wasn’t worth it and wasn’t a safe situation so we pulled the plug.”

A high tide of 5.5 just before 8 a.m., combined with a swirl of underwater tidal energy presumably caused by the tsunami, made paddling conditions extremely difficult. Surfers struggled to get to shore after their heats.The boys and girls in bright-colored jerseys were ultimately helped from the water by lifeguards assigned to the contest at multiple locations down the point, far from where they entered the water.

Parents coached and cheered kids from the cliff above, helping them time the precarious exit at staircases being battered by waves. No one was injured and organizers say the contest only went forward to begin with because of the experience level of the kids involved.

“We wouldn’t have done it with middle school kids, but all these kids are experienced surfers who are out here all the time,” Susskind said, adding that he heard no complaints and could feel the buzz from those who got to witness a rare act of nature up close.

“It was definitely one for the books, he said.

Advisory, not a warning

Kristan Lund, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Oxnard, distinguished the advisory issued Saturday from a more severe “warning,” where residents are urged to evacuate to higher ground immediately.

“We are advising people to stay out of the water and off the beaches,” she said.

She said the advisory was “fairly uncommon” because it was due to a volcanic eruption and not an underwater earthquake, and because it extended to the entire West Coast. The entire coast was at risk, she said, including portions of islands that face away from the volcano, such as Avalon Harbor.

The water surge can “bend around the island and it can also bounce off the shores,” she said. As of 8:30 a.m., Port San Luis Harbor in San Luis Obispo County was registering a surge of just over one foot, she said.

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The National Weather Service said the tsunami activity was supposed to hit Monterey around 7:30 a.m. and San Francisco around 8:10 a.m. Beaches in Southern California were supposed to see impacts beginning around 7:50 a.m. Many beaches and piers were closed. Berkeley closed its marina and urged people to seek higher ground.

“If you are located in this coastal area,” NWS said, “move off the beach and out of harbors and marinas. Do not go to the coast to watch the tsunami. Be alert to instructions from your local emergency officials.”

Officials said some coastal areas could see wave heights of 1 to 2 feet. “Main impacts expect to be strong rip currents, coastal flooding, and inundation of low lying areas is possible. Move to higher ground,” NWS said.

The tsunami was caused by the eruption of an undersea volcano Saturday. It brought tsunami alerts from large swaths of the Pacific including Hawaii and the West Coast.

In Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reported waves slamming ashore from a foot in Nawiliwili, Kauai, in Hawaii, to 2.7 feet in Hanalei. “We are relieved that there is no reported damage and only minor flooding throughout the islands,” the center said, describing the situation in Hawaii.

It has been more than a decade since Santa Cruz County has faced down significant issues due to a tsunami.

A 8.9 magnitude earthquake off coast of Japan in March 2011 — one that caused massive damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — caused a 3-foot rise in Santa Cruz, sank more than a dozen boats and caused tens of millions in damages. Though the rise Saturday is not expected to be as significant, the amount of damage it might cause, if any, is unpredictable.

Scenes from Tonga

If you haven’t yet seen images from the South Pacific where the volcanic eruption happened, these are pretty dramatic — and bring into context how the reverberations could be felt this far away.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.