The Alberni Tsunami

March 1, 2003 by Darrell Ohs

Buildings, docks and other structures were damaged beyond repair in the 1964 Tsunami. Cars were scattered like toys.

Shortly after midnight, 17-year-old Linda King was getting ready for bed when she heard the sound of water outside her bedroom window at 189 River Road in Alberni, B.C. The Somass River had risen sharply and had seeped under the front door before retreating down its banks. Linda woke her mother, Ethel, and 14-year-old brother Colin, and while mopping up from four centimetres of water that had washed over the floor of their Vancouver Island home they heard over the radio that a tidal wave had struck and another was expected.

It was Saturday, March 28, 1964.

From the front room window, Linda saw a wall of water heading towards the house. “I just yelled, ‘Here it comes!'”

The three, along with their two cats, crawled up through a door into the attic. “The house started creaking and the next thing I knew we were actually moving,” recalls Linda. Watching from the attic window, Ethel and her two children saw their propane tank float by, hissing from a broken line. The tank was followed by Colin’s pigeon shed. “It was so black by then. We thought we were floating down the inlet towards the ocean.”

Resigned to fate, the family–amazingly enough–fell asleep. Linda credits that response to exhaustion and trauma. “I’m sure it was the same in the Blitz, the bombing in London where people slept in subway stations and bomb shelters while bombs fell above them.” The King’s home floated back and forth, but fortunately moved inland before bottoming out on a golf driving range roughly 300 metres from its River Road address. Dawn was breaking when they woke up and looked out the window. “We could see that we were in the middle of a field somewhere,” recalls Linda.

Using a hockey stick, Colin checked the depth of the water as the three of them waded–carrying the cats in a basket–towards a deserted road leading back into town.

When the rest of the bewildered populace of the Alberni Valley woke up that misty morning, they found that their low-lying neighbourhoods, businesses, and industries had been thrown into chaos. Everything that hadn’t been bolted down had been picked up and scattered by the irresistible onslaught of sea to shore. Cars, boats, houses and logs had floated away with the surge–swept inland by the tidal wave’s unimaginable force.

Tidal waves or tsunamis are caused by undersea earthquakes. On Good Friday, March 27, 1964, Anchorage, Alaska, was rocked by one of the strongest earthquakes of the century. The Great Alaskan Earthquake, recorded at 8.6 on the Richter scale, boosted up a section of the ocean floor 15 metres. The resulting waves travelled from the Gulf of Alaska, reaching speeds in open water of up to 720 kilometres per hour.

Typically, the emotional response to a disaster is often associated with one’s proximity to the event. In the Alberni Valley, reactions to the news of the Alaskan quake ranged from sympathy to relief as valley residents recollect thinking: “Gosh, that’s terrible–too bad for them.” And “I’m sure glad we live here instead of there.” But nobody had an inkling what the impending recoils from the Earth’s blast–1,800 kilometres away–would have on their own lives and property as the wave swept into the Alberni Valley like a thief in the night.

The waves rolled down the coast almost unnoticed. But as they entered the funnel-shaped Alberni Inlet, the narrowing shoreline forced the waves to pile up. At midnight, the first of these waves entered the mouth of the inlet. Ten minutes later it had advanced 60 kilometres to Alberni and Port Alberni, two municipalities that amalgamated in 1967 to become Port Alberni.

When the wave hit, the surge caused some initial flooding. When the force retreated, it drained the harbour. Boats were grounded, including the anchored Japanese freighter Meishusan Maru, which flopped over on her side on the tidal flats.

The RCMP, the remainder of the Alberni Valley Rescue Squad, municipal workers and other citizens began a door-to-door evacuation. At that time, the twin municipalities were home to approximately 17,000 people. The rescue squad’s quick response gave many residents a chance to escape to higher ground. Unfortunately, the period of grace between the first wave and the next one was not long enough.

The second and most devastating wave rolled into the inlet and it continued to build in height and force as it raced toward the municipalities. The wave’s crest was three metres above normal high tide when it piled inland.

Jim Sawyer, then-city manager for Alberni, stood on the back steps of city hall and watched the river rise by a foot a minute. When it started lapping at the bottom step, Sawyer retreated across the street to join a group of rescuers manning a roadblock on the Kitsuskis Creek Bridge. At 1:20 a.m., the group heard the crest of the second wave charging up the inlet and surging through the Somass Division Sawmill and the MacMillan Bloedel Pulp and Paper Mill.

“Things went dark,” recalls Sawyer from his home in Port Alberni. “All we heard were the sounds of lumber creaking, cracking and breaking, which in retrospect were probably the houses floating off their foundations and being swept away. A terrific roar came out of the paper mill as the steam pressure from the boilers released. The sudden blackness with all these loud strange noises and clouds of steam pouring from the mill was a very eerie combination.”

Some of the wave swept into the mouth of Kitsuskis Creek, sweeping narrowly past the retreating crowd of rescuers and onlookers on the bridge. The surge of water inundated neighbourhoods upstream. Meanwhile, steam pouring from the mills rolled over the valley floor. “We couldn’t see anything anymore,” remembers Sawyer. “We had no idea what was really happening….”

What the rescuers couldn’t see beyond the mist were houses, log booms, cars and boats indiscriminately riding the wave into town.

People tried to escape from their shifting homes, but found that the force of water held their doors shut. Many slipped out through windows and waded or swam to safety. Others scrambled into attics or onto roofs. As the big wave retreated, it sucked two houses into the inlet, never to be seen again.

On the 25th anniversary of the disaster, one woman told a reporter from the Alberni Valley Times that her house moved off its foundation and floated away. “We were moving fast, spinning around and around. As the water started to circle and move down the canal (the Alberni Inlet), I thought ‘This is it!’ Water was up to my mouth…. I turned grey afterwards.”

Radio station CJAV, located in the Barclay Hotel, could not broadcast emergency messages and relay vital information because the wave had submerged the hotel’s first storey and knocked out the station’s transmitters. Anxiously, rescuers with flashlights set out with rowboats into the unknown. One civil defence worker rowing around shone his light into a house and rescued a baby floating on a mattress.

Four less forceful waves stormed in at 3 a.m., 4:30 a.m. 5:15 a.m. and 6:45 a.m. Garnet Reynolds, Port Alberni alderman and acting mayor that weekend, was part of the rescue team gathered near the Kitsuskis Creek Bridge. “People think they’re like the wave on the television show Hawaii 5-0, but that’s wrong,” he recalls. “It’s as if the hand of God was lifting up the bottom of the ocean.”

When the sun broke through the mist and steam, it shined upon scores of stunned victims, many carrying cardboard boxes of belongings from their scattered houses. Homes and stores were either washed away or written off as destroyed. Another 350 buildings, hotels, car lots, industries, service stations were damaged by the wave and fouled up by sea silt. The water washed over some 300 cars, writing off most of them.

There were front steps leading to empty foundations, the ugly aftermath of a force that grabbed houses and swept them away. One home came to rest at a gas station, parked right next to the pumps as naturally as a Studebaker. A nine-metre cabin cruiser rode the wave almost a kilometre from its moorings and ran aground in the middle of River Road. A church built beside Beaver Creek Road sailed through the chain-link fence of a tennis court before settling across the net. Cars floated about like driftwood and came to rest askew and chaotically like toys on a playroom floor. Damage to property and industry amounted to some $10 million (1964 dollars).

Spectators and rescue workers were astounded that no one was killed. Captain J.D. Sommerville, area commander of civil defence, told The Province newspaper on March 30, 1964 that it was “a true miracle no one was drowned or even seriously injured. Apart from the fact that the first wave gave people some warning before the second, more severe one arrived, I am unable to account for the lack of casualties.”

The City of Port Alberni–the larger of the two municipalities–had disbanded its civil defence service in 1963, so no warning system existed for a civil disaster. The Cuban Missile Crisis had come and gone, and many people had come to believe that the main role of civil defence was to respond to a nuclear attack. At any rate, the smaller municipality of Alberni did have a small-scale organization, but prior to the disaster its coordinator had suffered a heart attack and was recovering in hospital. The lack of civil defence organization on a municipal level delayed the response of the provincial civil defence until news of the disaster was heard over commercial radio.

The military sent personnel to help with the cleanup and protect property from looters. Roughly 200 members of the Queen’s Own Rifles from Victoria and army engineers from Chilliwack used heavy equipment to demolish written-off homes. The RCMP, meanwhile, assigned 45 officers, 14 auxiliaries, nine cars and two boats to the job of blocking off damaged areas.

Why did a wave that was hardly noticeable in the open Pacific hit the Alberni Valley communities so ferociously? Seismically triggered waves are very long and low and usually not more than 24 centimetres in height. The velocity in open seas can reach up to 800 kilometres per hour, accelerating in deeper water and shoaling in shallower regions. Surprisingly, ships at sea are usually unaware of their presence.

If a tidal wave funnels into a harbour or an inlet it can be amplified to much higher proportions than if it encounters a straight shoreline. This explains why the Alberni Valley suffered much greater damage from the Alaskan quake than did Tofino, which is right on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. This phenomenon is further exemplified by the fact that the waters rushed through Alberni at the head of the inlet.

* * *

The lower reaches of the Alberni Valley are still at a great disadvantage should another tidal wave strike. Protective measures since 1964 include the raising of the roadbed of River Road and the building of six-metre dikes to retain Kitsuskis Creek. The city rezoned part of the potential disaster area to flood plain, restricting future development in spite of much opposition by property owners. As in most cities, industrial development centres around the waterfront and this situation is not easily reversible.

Other important lessons were learned from the disaster. For one, Canada has joined the West Coast/Alaska Tsunamic Warning Centre located in Palmer, Alaska. Regardless of the location of an earthquake in the Pacific Rim, the centre is the sole provider of tsunami warning, watch and advisory bulletins for Alaska, British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon and California. It is an adjunct agency to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, an international network of tide and seismic reporting stations located throughout the Pacific Rim that detect seismic events, record unusual wave activity and plot their speed and direction.

The West Coast/Alaska Tsunamic Warning Centre’s objective is to detect and locate major earthquakes along the West Coast of North America, where the wave’s travel time and distance will be significantly shorter. Nearby undersea earthquakes can touch off waves that will reach the coast in minutes. In British Columbia, warnings are sent to the Provincial Emergency Program, PEP, where the information is refined and relayed to civil defence and emergency preparedness authorities who alert and evacuate the population from coastal areas that may be endangered.

Tidal Wave Or Tsunami?

The term tidal wave is a misnomer since it has nothing to do with the tidal forces of the moon and sun. Consequently, scientists have adopted the word tsunami–pronounced without the ‘t’–from the Japanese in recognition of their pioneering research on the subject and the history of destruction these events have had on that country. Tsunamis are secondary effects triggered from undersea earthquakes, landslides, volcanic activity or atomic explosions. Using ‘tidal wave’ was far more common in 1964 and still seems to be the preferred term, although most British Columbians are now familiar with the term tsunami.


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