The Biggest Tsunami to Ever Hit California

tsunami warning signs along the Pacific coastline in California
© Tum Kia/

Written by Nina Phillips

Published: April 16, 2024

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Tsunamis are a pretty terrifying natural disaster. Depending on their speed and volume, they can wipe out entire cities and kill thousands of people. Unlike most natural disasters, as long as tsunamis are in the water, they do not lose any speed or energy. So tsunamis originating from the opposite side of the ocean pose just as much danger as one close by, if not more so. Thankfully, dangerous tsunamis rarely hit the United States, and only a few of the states are at risk.

Two dogs running on the beach in Carmel, CA

While beaches can be beautiful and a lot of fun, the biggest tsunami to ever hit California reminds everyone of their potential danger as well.

©Frank Lee/iStock via Getty Images

California is one of the states where tsunamis are most prevalent. There have been five devastating tsunamis in the state since the 1700s, but none quite match up to the destruction caused by the biggest tsunami to ever hit California.

Want to learn more about this disaster? Keep reading.

How Common Are Tsunamis in California?

tsunami with a big wave crashing a town in the coast

Tsunamis are no joke, and some places in the world experience quite a few of them every year.


It’s hard to tell exactly how many tsunamis occur in California every year. Most of them are so small, they aren’t considered. In the last few hundred years, there have been about 80 tsunamis significant enough to record.

While any coastal part of California can be hit, the northern part of the state is the most at risk. Tsunamis from Japan and Alaska both eventually hit the northernmost part of California.

What Other States Are Prone to Tsunamis?

Molokini Crater, Maui, Hawaiian Islands

Islands are often more at risk than larger countries.

©Digital Vision./DigitalVision via Getty Images

The Pacific Ocean is where most underwater earthquakes, and therefore tsunamis, occur. This means that states in the western United States are the most at risk. Besides California, this includes Washington, Alaska, and Oregon. Hawaii also faces some risks, as well as American territories.

The East Coast, are also potentially at risk for tsunamis, though there is a far smaller chance.

What Was the Biggest Tsunami to Hit California?

Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur. MEXICO

California has plenty of beaches, which can pose a problem sometimes.

©VG Foto/

There was a large tsunami in California in 2011, and while that one was destructive, it wasn’t the biggest.


The biggest, but not necessarily the worst, earthquake hit California in Crescent City, 20 miles south of Oregon. Four tidal waves ended up hitting Crescent City just before midnight. Other cities nearby were affected, but not as badly. For example, the Bay Area was also impacted,

While Crescent City, California was the final destination, it wasn’t the only state to suffer from the tsunami. Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington were all hit and suffered damages to some degree.

This isn’t even close to the first tsunami to his Crescent City. Since 1933 alone, over 32 tsunamis of varying sizes have hit the city. Thankfully, all but five of them have been minor.


This large tsunami hit California on March 28, 1964.

Since the tsunami hit, Crescent City, and California as a whole, have upgraded their warning systems for natural disasters. Crescent City now has a siren-based tsunami warning system, evacuation maps, and posted signs along evacuation routes.

Crescent City is one of the only cities in California listed as “Tsunami Ready” officially by the National Weather Service’s TsunamiReady program.


The earthquake in Alaska that sent the tsunami waves rushing toward Crescent City, California was of a magnitude of 9.2. The wave was also fast. The earthquake happened in the middle of the night in less than five hours, around midnight local time, and the earthquake was hitting the city.

How Bad Was the Aftermath?

Not only was the tsunami that hit Crescent City the worst in California’s history, but it also has the record for being the worst tsunami to hit the West Coast in recorded history.

The tsunami had waves that crested at 21 feet high. Over 29 blocks of the city were completely ruined, including 289 buildings and homes. The waves were so forceful that some houses were pushed right off their foundations.

In total, roughly 100 people died from the actual tsunami, with 11 or 12 of them being in Crescent City. But much of the downtown had to be rebuilt and hundreds of people were left homeless.

Before that tsunami, the worst one might have been in January 1700. Based on oral history and geologic evidence of the surrounding area, there might have been one in California, near what is now Cape Mendocino, that was an 8 or a 9 in magnitude. This wave ran from California to Japan.

Even the 2011 tsunami, which also hit Crescent City, was only a 9.0, instead of a 9.2. However, the 2011 tsunami was arguably more deadly, killing over 18,000 people and setting off the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The tsunami also caused over $100 million worth of damage to California’s coast, especially harbors and ports.

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About the Author

Nina is a writer at A-Z Animals, FIDIS Travel, and Giant Freakin Robot. Her focus is on wildlife, national parks, and the environment. She has been writing about animals for over three years. Nina holds a Bachelor's in Conservation Biology, which she uses when talking about animals and their natural habitats. In her free time, Nina also enjoys working on writing her novels and short stories. As a resident of Colorado, Nina enjoys getting out in nature, traveling, and watching snow hit the mountains from her enclosed porch.

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