© 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.