Ken Kneen brought his wife and two young children from Ottumwa, Iowa, to Redondo Beach this week so they could get a little California sunshine while he attended a business conference.
The Kneens booked Room 217 at the Portofino Inn, expecting to enjoy its splendid harbor view and the sound of the waves lapping at the rocks beneath them.
But the waves, churned 25 feet high by a winter storm, were more than the Kneens or anyone else expected--so tumultuous that the Kneen family returned to the hotel Sunday to find their room, and five others at the three-story Portofino, floating in King Harbor.
Although the Kneens lost most of their belongings, they were never in any danger--unlike the 50-some people who were plucked from the hotel's roof by helicopter.
Ken Kneen returned Monday to salvage what he could from his car, which was in the hotel's flooded parking lot. All he got was a baby stroller.
Stories like the Kneens' were common throughout the harbor area Monday as "a critical combination of tide, surf, wind and storm," as one official called it, turned parking lots into beaches, ripped at least six holes in a breakwater made of boulders, and blasted the pier's wooden pilings.
The thrashing began about 7 p.m. Sunday, and the magnitude of those waves took officials by surprise despite high tide and storm warnings issued earlier in the day. Police Lt. Jeffrey Cameron said a watch commander checked the breakwater that protects the harbor shortly after 6 p.m. and saw the waves crashing over the wall, but he was not worried because the pier can normally withstand a seven-foot tide.
Winds, Arctic Storm
But Cameron said officials soon realized that the tide, coupled with fierce winds, an Arctic storm and escalating waves, would be too much. They closed the pier at 8:30 p.m
Sometime before 11 p.m., the waves tore six rooms from the nearby Portofino Inn and dropped them into the ocean; a yacht was thrown from the harbor into the hotel's parking lot and dozens of cars were tossed together like matchboxes.
Corby Faiver, the general manager of Reuben's restaurant, which sits across from the hotel and was also severely damaged, ventured into his restaurant soon after the Portofino was hit.
"While we were standing by the bar," he said, "the floor decided to lift up on us. I was standing there and the damn floor lifted up about a foot and, to be real honest, we ran out of there real quick."
Boaters, fearful that their vessels would break loose and float away, were a bit more adventuresome. Some sneaked past police barricades and tried to secure their boats.
$250,000 in Damage
Les Guthrie--general partner of King Harbor Marina, the company that leases part of the city-owned harbor--spent the night scrambling with boaters and his staff to tie vessels to their docks. Guthrie said his business sustained about $250,000 in damage but fared better than his neighbors. In the storm's aftermath Monday, he looked from his muddy parking lot toward the rest of the broken harbor.
"It's a terrible way to see your competition leave," he said.
By 7 a.m. Monday, as the tide was swelling larger, so were the crowds on oceanside parking garages and other vista points and a party atmosphere took hold.
By the time the 7-foot high tide hit its peak at 7:52 a.m., hundreds of onlookers had gathered with cameras, video equipment and binoculars to witness nature's wrath. Many had the day off from work or school because of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
Water Crashed Through
"Oooooh!" some onlookers gasped as windows in the Cattlemens Steak House, which stands on the northern end of the horseshoe-shaped pier, gave way shortly before 8 a.m. Water crashed through the northern windows, tossing chairs and tables about in the restaurant. Within half a minute, the water crashed through windows on the other side.
Soon afterward, the sagging cement and wooden walkway outside the restaurant collapsed, bringing down a street lamp.
Crowds remained at the pier throughout the morning, watching bits of broken boats and pilings crash onto the shore, waterfalls flowing from where parking lots once stood and waves hurling over the breakwater as if it was not there.
A group of six federal and city officials who were trying to assess the damage were inundated when especially high surf swept over the parking lot.
City officials have worried about the harbor for at least 10 years and have lobbied the federal government to raise the entire breakwater to 22 feet. It is now 14 feet high in some places and 22 feet in others.
'We've Been Warning Them'
The Army Corps of Engineers intends to present a study to Congress this spring which, corps officials say, demonstrates the needs for the $7-million project. Del Smith, a city lobbyist, said, "We've been warning them this is going to happen if they didn't fix it."
In the meantime, to protect the harbor and its boats from further high tides, the corps Monday started lugging 2,000 tons of rock to King Harbor. The rock--placed at the end of the parking lots--will form a semi-circular barricade outside the hotel, restaurants and marinas.