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1964: B.C.‘s tsunami disaster

The Story

It's been 35 years since a tsunami last struck Canada's coasts. That came to an end on March 27, 1964, when the first of six waves hit the Port Alberni area of Vancouver Island. Sparked by North America's largest earthquake in a century far north in Alaska, the tsunami tore up trees, flung cars and swept homes off their foundation. This CBC Television clip reports on the damage caused by the "wall of water" as residents struggled to recover.

Medium: Television
Program: Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: March 31, 1964
Host: Peter Riley
Duration: 4:11

Did You know?

• On March 27, 1964, a 9.2 magnitude earthquake occurred more than 20 kilometres below Alaska's Prince William Sound. The resulting tremors and tsunami killed 122 people and caused in excess of $106 million US in damage along the Pacific coast.

• The quake hit the Alaskan coast at 5:27 p.m. PST, virtually wiping out several Alaskan communities including Valdez, Seward, Whittier and the capital of Anchorage.

• While Alaska was hardest hit by the disaster, the resulting tsunami spread destruction as far south as California over the space of 24 hours. British Columbia's mainland was spared any significant damage.

• The first wave struck the largely unsuspecting city of Port Alberni, B.C., around midnight on March 27, Good Friday. That two-and-half metre wave was followed 90 minutes later by what reporter CBC Peter Riley called "a 14-foot wall of water" which picked up cars, uprooted trees and washed away entire homes.

• That three-storey wave was the biggest of six to hit the Alberni area over the space of seven hours, according to a report on the disaster prepared by the B.C. Civil Defence.

• The report estimated the wave was traveling at nearly 400 km/h and "smashed everything in its path and tossed enormous logs and other debris, including buildings, boats and automobiles up to 1,000 feet (or 305 metres)."

• In the end about 350 homes were damaged and 58 totally destroyed. Total damage at the mill town on the west coast of Vancouver Island was estimated at $5 million. Miraculously, no one in the area was killed by the tsunami.

• Like the woman in this television clip who talks about watching her neighbours' homes float away around her, tales of survival abounded in the days following the waves.

• The B.C. report singled out a few tales including: "One man [who] dashed out to save his brand-new convertible only to find a pair of youngsters floating by on a log; he too was chest deep before the trio made it to dry ground. A civil defence worker rowing around in the dark checking houses flashed his light into one and rescued a baby floating on a mattress."

• "The tales of close escapes are endless, and days later people who witnessed the tidal flood still found it hard to believe there'd been no casualties."

• As the seismologist in this clip points out, the Alberni Inlet was responsible for increasing the strength of the tsunami. By the time it passed through the narrow inlet the waves reached a peak of three metres and extended some 30 kilometres inland.

• This clip also shows that the term 'tsunami' had yet to come into usage in the 1960s. Both CBC reporters refer to it as either a "tidal wave" or "tidal disturbance." Only the seismologist calls it by its proper name.

• In his report, W.W. Mathers, the Civil Defence director of operations and planning, concluded that with $5 million damage and zero deaths, Vancouver Island residents were fortunate.

• "It was a cheap lesson for other communities and governments in British Columbia, to prepare their civil defence arrangements before emergency," he said. "The earthquakes which devastated Anchorage or San Francisco could equally well have struck the Albernis or Vancouver."


Canada's Earthquakes and Tsunamis more