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By Tom Marshall

It was 39 years ago this month—March 2, 1983 to be exact—when a major, late-winter storm nearly wiped out San Clemente’s iconic pier. Fifty-mile-per-hour winds pushed sheets of rain and 20-foot spindrift waves against the pier during the early-morning hours.  

Local artist Lisa Spinelli was there documenting the storm by taking photos. She remembers, “The pier was snaking around so bad that they ended up sawing off the pier to keep it from dragging The Fisherman’s Restaurant into the water.”  

By the time the storm had subsided, an 80-foot section near the shore and another 400-foot expanse at the seaward end of the pier had collapsed into the Pacific Ocean. While no one was injured, the damage was extensive. 

Besides the two pier sections, the Gallery Snack Shop and the bait and tackle store had been carried away by the sea. The shops were owned by Gene Burke and managed by Daisy Sherrill, who was known by everyone simply as “Daisy.”

She told Los Angeles Times, “Everything is gone. There’s no trace of all the fishing gear, or the refrigerators and microwave oven, of all the tools and things that cost us more than $25,000.” 

The pair had spent the past eight years building up the business. Fighting back tears, the 57-year-old, white-haired Daisy said, “I don’t know what I’ll do now.” 

The storm also severely damaged two other piers, at Huntington Beach and Seal Beach.

In less than five months, San Clemente’s pier became the first of the three to be rebuilt and reinforced. Federal, state, and county funds covered most of the $800,000 cost. Another $30,000 was raised from donations by citizens. 

Waves crash against the San Clemente Pier, ultimately taking down two sections in March 1983. Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Spinelli

The pier reopened even before safety railings had been installed along its sides. The fate of rebuilding the bait-tackle and snack shops, however, had not been decided. But, by July 16, Daisy was back at her post.

With her van parked across the pier’s end and a bright orange carpet in front of its open doors, Daisy sat in a lawn chair offering what she could for sale. 

“Business is a little slow,” she told the LA Times. “We don’t have electricity to keep bait frozen, and we can’t sell sandwiches and the like. But we’re here.”

This was the second time the pier met disaster. The 1939 “hurricane” took down half of the wooden structure. When it was rebuilt, 275 new pilings were added for strength. The pier was also changed into the current T-shape.

More modern construction techniques and materials hopefully will protect the pier from future storms.  

Jim Nielsen of the local nonprofit organization PierPride Foundation notes that the wooden support footings were recently replaced with concrete.

Even so, it is likely that some future storm could still cause major damage. Would the city be willing to pay the cost of repairs or even replacement? 

“Of course. It’s iconic,” said Mayor Gene James, offering reassurance.

Tom Marshall is a member of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist.

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