Fifty years ago, we didn’t call it a tsunami

© Leslie Prpich, photos used without permission


Ask anyone in Port Alberni what they remember about Easter weekend, 1964, they’ll tell you panic, destruction, disbelief.

I remember being tugged awake by my older brother at two in the morning and creeping downstairs to the living room. My parents and grandmother were huddled around the radio in the dark. Dad let us stay up. We even toasted marshmallows in the fireplace! I realize now he was trying to keep us from being scared. It worked.

March 27: Most of the 25,000 people in the twin Vancouver Island cities of Alberni and Port Alberni were already in bed when a bulletin on the 11:00 news reported an earthquake near Anchorage, Alaska. It was big—8.4 on the Richter scale—enough to send a massive tsunami rolling down the coast. Nobody tuned to the news in the Alberni Valley worried. Tucked forty miles inland at the head of the Alberni Inlet, we surely were out of harm’s reach.

Our geography was our undoing. The waves funnelled into Barkley Sound at Bamfield, resonating from bank to bank like bathwater sloshing in a tub. Where the Sound narrows into Alberni Inlet, the water piled up, higher and higher, and surged up the inlet at 240 miles an hour. When the waves slammed into the bend at the mouth of the Somass River, the water swept over the banks, poured into Kitsuksis Creek, and backed up the river in a mammoth deluge.

The first wave was eight feet high and it hit River Road at ten past midnight. No alarm bells sounded. Gunnar Molander was on night watch at the plywood plant. He saw it coming. The people asleep in the riverside houses did not. At 12:30, District Social Worker Pat Adang got an anxious call from a family on Victoria Quay, the road that runs alongside the Alberni Canal. A foot of water covered their floor, and they weren’t sure what to do. Mrs. Adang dressed quickly and drove over to their house. It was too dark to assess the damage. The water had receded, but they thought another wave might be coming. The family moved as many of their belongings as they could onto higher ground at the roadside and asked the neighbours to put them up overnight. Mrs. Adang helped their teenage son lug the TV set to the road and then turned to the daunting task of rousing every family along the river. Hours later, when she drove back up Victoria Quay, the house was gone.

The second wave hammered the foreshore at 1:15, knocking out the local radio station’s transmitter. The impact splintered the floor of the Barclay Hotel. Workers on the graveyard shift at the pulp mill fled up Redford Street hill and watched the lights of the mill blink out as the ten-foot wave smashed through the buildings. Moments later, the valley was pitched into darkness when the power went out. The enormous boilers at the pulp mill screeched to a stop. The hiss of venting steam was eerie.

My grandmother, whose two-storey house in the Kitsuksis Creek floodplain was up on blocks awaiting a new foundation, woke to the sound of rushing water. She called my mother, terrified, to tell her there’d been a flood. My mother looked out the window and saw nothing out of place.

“You’re having a bad dream, Mom. Go back to bed.”

“I’m up to my waist in this bad dream!” my grandmother yelled.

Mom sent Dad to pick her up and when he got there, Bob Brown was slogging through three feet of water to carry Nana to the road. The house mover had been worried her house would float off the blocks he had lifted it onto. Amazingly, it stayed put, but 55 others were destroyed, 14 were knocked off their foundations, and 306 were flooded, with damage ranging from minor to severe.

The third wave hit at 3 a.m. and it was the biggest, but the tide had fallen by then so it crested lower. Three smaller waves rolled in between 4:30 and 6:45. Each time, the water swept over the lowlands and then receded. The volunteer rescue squad patrolled the river, flashing lights into floating houses, fishing out survivors. All night long, taxis scuttled between Beaver Creek Road and Alberni, evacuating 200 families. Most people fled to relatives and friends on higher ground. Those who had nowhere else to go gathered in the lobby of the Arlington Hotel and waited for morning.

It was a day like no other. CKNW in Vancouver provided emergency broadcasting while the local station was off the air. News of the “tidal wave” travelled fast. Until the police blocked off the highway at Whiskey Creek to keep sightseers out, people flocked into the valley to gawk at the extraordinary scene: the Somass Auto Court bobbing in the river, cars flipped upside-down on swampy lawns, debris strewn around as though a furious giant had scooped up the houses in the night and shaken their contents onto the streets.

There was no emergency plan. Bob Waugh, the City Works Superintendent for Alberni, was thrust into a leadership role when he responded to a midnight alert about tidal debris. Flooding from seasonal high tides was routine in the valley, but Waugh quickly realized this was something bigger. His prior interest in civil defense paid off. He notified Search and Rescue, the RCMP, the Salvation Army, and the city managers. By morning, an organization was in place and priorities set: tie back the BC Hydro “hot wires”; reinforce the walls of the sewage lagoon; impose a smoking ban around the harbour, where fuels had spilled. The ad-hoc team established headquarters on the upper floor of the fire hall, but former Alberni city manager Jim Sawyer recalls, “The emergency response promptly became bigger than us.”

Civil Defence officials in Victoria had heard about the disaster on the morning news and immediately dispatched a rescue truck, portable two-way radios, and a communications van to the valley. The mobile disaster kitchen was also sent in, along with welfare workers from Courtenay and Nanaimo.

The phones in the Alberni welfare office rang all day. Almost seven hundred displaced people needed food and beds. Most of those evacuated were billeted in private homes. Three large families were settled in at the Sergeant’s Mess at the army camp under supervision of the public health nurse. A woman from New Westminster phoned to donate $5,000 worth of clothing. Standard Furniture in Victoria sent a truckload of second-hand furniture.

Jim Sawyer and his Port Alberni counterpart, Dennis Thane, spent the better part of Saturday assessing property damage on River Road. Armed with a file of assessments, photographs attached, the two attempted to sort out which house belonged on which foundation. Many buildings were damaged beyond repair; these were eventually bulldozed and burned.

The province declared on official state of emergency on Saturday afternoon. By evening, 200 army personnel and 65 RCMP officers had arrived on the scene from the mainland. The troops were pressed into service on Sunday, hosing off the mud that coated everything in the foreshore: roads, docks, buildings, vehicles. Merchants set their ruined stock and equipment out in pathetic, muddy piles along the sidewalks to await the Damage Assessment Teams.

By Sunday evening, fatigue and after-shock had taken hold. Initial tallies estimated the damage to private property at about $5,000,000; a further $20,000,000 was sustained by MacMillan, Bloedel and Powell River Ltd., the cities’ chief employer. The company announced that until their machinery could be repaired, 600 workers would be laid off.

Still, the residents of the Alberni Valley count themselves lucky. The destruction could have been so much worse. There might have been fires, explosions, deaths. Miraculously, no one in the twin cities was killed, and only a few were injured.

Anyone who was in the Albernis on Easter weekend of 1964 has a “tidal wave” story to tell: Remember Bill Mercer’s car lot, down on the 3rd Avenue flats? The office lifted up and an Austin Minor slid under it. Then, when the building settled back on top, it caught the nose of the Austin and the thing was pinned there, sticking up at an angle.


I was there, but I was only five years old. I don’t remember the Austin Minor. I don’t remember seeing houses floating down the river or cars piggy-backed in the mud along 3rd Avenue. I didn’t see the baby on the mattress or the church that was hurtled a hundred yards until it skidded to a stop on the field behind the Athletic Hall.

Dead fish, that’s what I remember. Dead fish on my grandmother’s living room rug.


23 Responses to “Fifty years ago, we didn’t call it a tsunami”

  1. Sarah Fleury

    This story of the Port Alberni tidal wave is a fantastic post. Thanks!

    • commatologist

      Thanks, Mariko. I used archival records and old newspaper articles to research this, and I guess they got me in the 60s swing!

  2. Gillian Wright

    That was a great read! Fantastic details, so much I didn’t know. I was barely five too, don’t think I saw the fish in Nana house, I only remember the water line in the stair
    well. Thanks for the story, it brought back a little childhood for me. ~Gillian~

    • commatologist

      Thanks, Gillian! I’d forgotten about the water mark. I still remember the musty water smell, though. It’s funny that the brain can retain a memory of a smell for decades.

  3. Jada

    Bob Brown was my Grandfather! My Mom and aunts and uncle remember this all to well! Thanks for the post

    • commatologist

      Jada, that’s so cool. I’ve always loved the story of how your grandfather was worried about my grandmother and went over there to see if she was okay. Leslie

  4. Erin Haviland

    We were living on the flats..on 4th Ave. My dad was awoken by the alarms going off in the mill…by then, only the tops of the 5′ picket fence were out of the water. I was four, and still remember my mother throwing clothes willy nilly into a suitcase as my dad carried us on his shoulders to the road. I remember crying when we drove by the marina the next day to see boats resting in yards across the street.

    • commatologist

      Thanks for sharing your memories, Erin. It must have been scary/exciting to be carried on your dad’s shoulders!

  5. Dave Lambert

    An endearing story. I remember listening to the news reports of the ‘catastrophe.’ I was nine years old, living in Saskatoon at the time. In December of 1964 my mother, three siblings and I came to live on the coast. In early 1965 we moved to Nanaimo from Vancouver and I remember my grandparents taking us for a drive up to the Albernis for a ‘look see.’ After more than a year it was nearly impossible to tell what had happened. I have been a resident of Vancouver Island ever since, currently living in Chemainus.

    • commatologist

      Thanks, Dave. I live in northern BC now, but I have many happy memories of your little town. Chemainus was always a top-of-the-list place when we had visitors.

  6. Edwina Peterson

    The Peterson family lived on River Rd across from the Cyr’s-on the river side. My mother had just walked home with a friend from bingo and heard the water rushing along the side of our house. She checked and the water was rising-got my father out of bed and me as well. She called the radio station but they didn’t believe her as she was now standing in 2 inches of water in our kitched. Father got dressed and headed to the garage, didn’t have time to open the garage door he just drove out. When mother and I left the house our wooden walkway was now a foot above the ground the water was level with the car doors-father was honking the car horn to wake everyone up-we headed to the highest ground at that time which was the gas station -we drove slowly because of all the debris and water. That is my memory of the ‘tidal wave’.

  7. Amanda S.

    Does anyone have any pictures they would be willing to share with me? I’m trying to archive emergency preparedness events and it would help if I had pictures. Thanks for writing the article; I found the descriptions very helpful to understand what happened.

    • commatologist

      Amanda, UBC Library has three photos in its MacMillan Bloedell fonds (one of them is the one at the top of my post). Look here:

      The Alberni Valley Museum has pictures. I haven’t checked to see what they’ve digitized. Try the provincial archives, too.

      Many of the pictures used in newspaper articles over the years were taken by a Port Alberni resident and used without their permission. I wish I could remember the person’s name. If it comes back to me I’ll let you know.

  8. MikeT

    Thanks, we didn’t move to Alberni until 1969, so wasnt there during the actual event, but it was part of the local lore. This is the best retelling of it and fills in a few gaps.

  9. Colleen Halliwell (Hickey)

    Your story was like reliving the event. Well done. I was 13 and lived on Victoria Quay at the time. My younger brother and I were whisked away pretty quickly to higher ground while the first wave hit, so we didn’t see the house leave the foundation and float away. I remember how overwhelming and frightening everything was but I also remember how everyone pulled together. It is a happening in my life that I will never forget.

    • commatologist

      Thanks, Colleen. You’re the first person I’ve “met” who actually lost their house. It must have been overwhelming!! Definitely something to remember forever. Thanks for sharing your memory. Leslie

  10. Theresa Franks

    Thank you for writing this up..I was 11 years old and lived on Gertrude St….we lived in a one storey house. .I remember my Dad waking me up and hearing the water. .I thought it was hailing and rolled over. .he got me up and told me to go to my parents bedroom at the front of the house while he got my two brothers. .we waited and watched the water rise above the picket fence. .Dad tried at first to keep the water out, but when he heard the house creaking to float he opened the door and let it come in…a car came down the road and was swept off once it hot the water…the family quickly went to the neighbours house. ..Dad called friends on higher ground to come for us..being a holster, they thought at first he was pulling their leg..but because of the hour and the tone in his voice Mr Fosbery came for us. .the water had stopped rising just before we were going to go to the attic. ..our ride was able to come and Dad carried us and our neighbours to the car and we left for higher ground. .we had a spare lot used for a large garden that became the collection and burn pile for the neighbours. .I think the scariest part was not knowing how high the water was going to be..we lost stuff, but were all safe…I do wonder how far inland it went. .did Elizabeth Street get it,too??
    Theresa Latham Franks

    • commatologist

      Thanks for sharing your memories, Theresa. My grandmother’s house was on the corner of Lathom and Elizabeth, at the bottom of Lathom Road hill, so Elizabeth got it too. I recently saw a picture of the Elizabeth/Southgate corner (used to be Pidcocks’ house then Rowlands’ back in my day) showing how the wave had pushed the garage up against the house. That was only a block from where we lived at Southgate and Adelaide. I had no idea until I saw the picture that the water had come so close to us!


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