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If you live near the BC coast, no doubt you’ve heard talk on the radio and television about the 50th anniversary of the Alaska earthquake (magnitude 9.2; still the largest ever recorded in North America) and subsequent tsunami that occurred March 28, 1964. Geography dictated how the subsequent tsunami affected communities along the coast. While the story of Port Alberni is often relayed – and the damage was significant as you can see by the video I’ve posted below – few people realize that the Hesquiaht First Nation community in Hot Springs Cove was wiped out, forcing the community to move to its present day location. Here’s some great historic footage of the aftermath in Port Alberni:

1964: BC’s Tsunami Disaster

(For some reason, I can’t get the video to embed, but it should work if you click on the link.)

And, from pages 18-19 in Long Beach Wild:

On Good Friday 1964, a magnitude 9.2 earthquake occurred 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of Anchorage, Alaska. Deep below the earth’s surface, the North American plate suddenly detached from the oceanic Pacific plate and lurched seaward, setting everything above it into a rattling frenzy for about four minutes. The sudden motion deformed the crust, uplifting some sections as high 9 metres (30 feet) and generating a prodigious tsunami that swept across the Pacific Ocean at velocities reaching 830 kilometres (515 miles) per hour, as fast as a commercial jet. Within 16 hours, it reached Antarctica. The tsunami killed 119 people, including 12 as far south from Alaska as Crescent City, California.

Geography dictated how the tsunami acted on Vancouver Island’s west coast when it arrived less than 5 hours after the quake. When the giant open-ocean-fed swell of water arrived at Alberni Inlet, it ploughed in through the kilometre-wide opening and squeezed up the 40-kilometre- (25-mile-) long fjord, gathering size and momentum. Stopped in its tracks at the inlet’s head, the debris-loaded wave surged into Port Alberni, knocking houses off their foundations, flipping cars, ripping boats from their moorings, and derailing a loaded freight train. More than 250 buildings were damaged, 60 extensively. Incredibly, no life was lost in the chaos of that night, but the clean-up was long, muddy, and expensive.

Although Port Alberni received most of the press coverage in British Columbia, other communities were affected by the tsunami, too. One was Hot Springs village in northern Clayoquot Sound. In quick succession, three waves hit the village during the night. Several houses torn from their foundations floated into the bay and began to burn, ignited by tipped lanterns. Against a dark sky lit up by the flaming houses, residents clambered into boats and hurried from house to house ensuring everyone was safe, all the while negotiating whirlpools and bobbing stumps, logs, and other debris. No lives were lost there either, but damage was so great that the entire village was later relocated. In Tofino, the waves’ ferocity left the municipal water line between the village and the water source on Meares Island twisted and broken on the mudflats. The anchors and chains securing village docks had been lifted and knocked askew. In Ucluelet, a log boom snapped apart, filling the inlet with logs that battered pilings out from under several wharfs. Townspeople remember the peculiar quiet that fell momentarily before each wave arrived and the roar that followed as the wall of water flooded past and over islands and smashed into the bays.

Out at Long Beach that night, resort owner Neil Buckle arrived home late after visiting his wife in hospital, where she have given birth to their first child. Awakened by crashing and rumbling, he looked out a window to see his Dodge truck awash in a tangle of logs and brush. By Neil’s reckoning, the water flowed up Sandhill Creek beside the resort for well over a kilometre before pouring back down bearing logs, branches, and stumps. ‘I could see it in the moonlight,’ he recalled later. ‘The waves were as high as the room.’

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