On the 27th of March, 1964, as the residents of Anchorage, Alaska were cleaning up after their Good Friday dinner, the second largest earthquake in recorded history struck - its epicenter barely 120 km (75 miles) outside of town.
Five minutes later, as the magnitude 9.2 shaking finally subsided, an area encompassing 120,700 sq km (46,600 sq mi) – or roughly the size of New York State – lay in ruins.
Over the following 24 hours, eleven aftershocks would follow, each registering magnitude 6.0 or greater.
Over the ensuing weeks, 131 people were recorded as either dead or presumed dead; and this number could have been far worse, save for the area’s sparse population. But our story doesn’t end here.
Unbeknownst to anyone during the shaking, the ocean floor had suddenly leapt towards the surface - initiating one of the largest and most destructive tsunami events ever recorded.
Only four hours after the Anchorage quake, residents living in the small town of Port Alberni, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, were about to endure a series of tsunami.
While the first tsunami registered 2.4m (8 ft.) as it transited BC’s North Coast, and only 1.2m (4 ft.) as it passed Tofino, the narrowing Alberni Inlet quickly amplified the wave, such that by the time it arrived in Port Alberni, at 12:10am, it had once again recovered its previous height of 2.4m (8 ft.). Within five minutes, much of Port Alberni would be resting in ”chest-high water”. Thankfully, this first tsunami was a gradual rise in water level – resulting in lots of flooding, but little structural damage.
More fortunate perhaps, a small group of Port Alberni residents were already intimately familiar with tsunami, having relocated to Port Alberni after having previously lost everything they owned, in small villages that once dotted BC’s coastline back in the 1940′s. These good folks knew this first innundation was only the beginning. Thankfully, their quick thinking and immediate warnings, allowed hundreds of Port Alberni residents and visitors to flee the destructive second tsunami which soon followed.
One hour after the first tsunami, a second, fast moving tsunami, travelling 386 km/h (240 mph) and registering 3m (10 ft) in height, rode atop the first tsunami, slamming full force into Port Alberni at 1:10am.
Buildings not tied to their foundations were swept upwards of 305m (1000 ft) inland; concrete block buildings were knocked completely off their foundations. Those areas within 610m (2000 ft) of the shoreline sustained the greatest brunt of this destruction.
Thousands of logs, each weighing upwards of 2.7 metric tonnes (3 U.S. tons), were plucked from the sorting booms that once lined the Alberni Inlet – becoming kinetic torpedoes; and destroying everything in their path.
Fishing boats, once moored along the waterfront – now filled streets and buildings alike.
Later that night, a third tsunami registering 1.8m (6 ft.) arrived at 3:00am; and three more tsunami, each measuring 1.5m (5 ft.), would follow at 4:30am, 5:15am, and 6:45am respectively.
By noon, a number of lower elevation areas within Port Alberni remained under water; by 6pm, the tsunami waters had finally subsided.
Residents today still call it miraculous that not a single person drowned or even sustained serious injury that night.
Unfortunately, the township itself didn’t fair as well - some 355 buildings sustained considerable damage; 58 residences were completely destroyed, 14 more were knocked off their foundations.
Port Alberni following the 1964 Tsunami
Other villages, towns and cities along the West Coast, from Alaska to California, would suffer a similar fate that day. In the hamlet of Hot Springs Cove, 16 of the 18 houses would be destroyed; in Zeballos, 30 homes were knocked off their foundations; in Amai, 10 buildings were destroyed, leaving 37 people temporarily homeless and cut-off from the outside world.
This wasn’t the first tsunami to touch the lives of those living in Port Alberni. Oral history of the area’s First Nations (indigenous) people, speak of a ”large wave”, hundreds of feet tall, that swept through their villages many generations before. Recent geological evidence now supports this account; pointing to a large-scale tsunami event, consistent with the great Cascadia Earthquake of 26 January 1700.
This article wasn’t penned to instill fear in people; it’s purpose is to illustrate that these catastrophic events have happened before in our own backyard… …and they will happen again. Not a matter of if - but when.
So here’s some simple questions you might want to ask yourself:
- How prepared are you and your family to deal with catastrophic events such as these?
- What emergency escape planning have you and your family done? Where is your family’s meeting point? Who are the in- and/or out-of-province contacts your family members will contact to advise they’re safe?
- Do you have shelter/tents/tarps immediately available, should your lose access to your primary residence?
- Do you have alternate sources of heating/lighting (and sufficient fuel) available?
- Do you have enough food and water put aside for three weeks (including Rover?)
- If you are reliant upon medication (e.g. Insulin, heart medications, blood pressure medications, etc.) – do you have enough of each on hand to last you for a full month?
- Do you have a first aid kit in your house and/or your vehicle?
- Do you have fire extinguishers placed strategically throughout your residence and/or inside your vehicle?
- Do you have the tools and knowledge to quickly turn off the natural gas supply to your home, should a gas leak occur?
- Do you know where the breaker panel is located in your residence?
- Do you know where the ‘Mains’ breaker is located?
- Have you taken a first aid and/or CPR certification course in the last 5 years?
- Have you taken any training with respect to Search and Rescue?
- Are you trained and/or familiar with triage (the prioritization of casualties)?
- Do you have a pair of steel toed work boots, a hard hat, a dust mask, goggles, and heavy work gloves quickly available inside your “Jump Kit”?
- Do you have basic rescue equipment readily available (e.g. long crowbar, long-handled axe, long handled pick, rope, block and tackle, tarps, shoring material, etc.)?
- What are your plans for water purification; or sanitation; or sewage disposal?
- What alternate communications systems do you have available if our normal landline and cellular telephone infrastructure goes down?
- Do you have a battery-powered AM/FM radio available?
- Do you have spare batteries on hand for your lighting and radio?
- OPTIONAL: Do you have a gas-powered AC generator available? Do you have sufficient fuel for the generator? Do you have either solar- or wind-generated power available?
These are not dumb ‘survivalist’ questions; these are simple ‘survival’ questions that everyone should be able to answer – because soon, your life (and/or the lives of your immediate family) may rely on how well you can answer them.
All we’re asking you to do… …is give them some thought.
73 de Mike [VA7BZ]