Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Remembering the Port Alberni tsunami

Receding waters revealed cars caught beneath houses in topsy-turvy Port Alberni in the aftermath of the 1964 tsunami. BELOW: The cover of a post-tsunami report.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 4, 2011


A year ago, Port Alberni issued a tsunami advisory after a massive earthquake jolted Chile.

Doug Havard called his adult children to warn them. Then he headed for high ground.

To his dismay, he noticed families flocking to the harbour to watch for rising waters.

The sight so enraged him that he wrote a letter to the editor of the Alberni Valley Times. Imagine bringing your children to a disaster.

Mr. Havard, 61, knows this about tsunamis: They cannot be outrun.

He knows because as a youth he had to flee the black, churning, unforgiving waters of the sea as they destroyed his family’s home.

The shocking videos of the damage wrought by tsunamis in Japan last month revived memories in Port Alberni of a cold, dark and wet March weekend in 1964.

On the anniversary last week, snippets of 47-year-old newscasts were aired on the radio. Oldtimers at the local Tim Hortons reminisced about the night when the ocean came calling.

Mr. Havard was asked to recall a night he will never forget.

He was asleep in his shared second-floor bedroom when the family was roused after midnight on March 28. A neighbour alerted the family to what at the time was known as a tidal wave. A terrible earthquake had shaken Alaska and now the waters were coming.

“When we walked downstairs to the main floor, there was already water in the house, maybe two feet,” he recalled. “It was pitch black. The power was out. All the furniture was floating. We had trouble getting the door open.

“I remember the carpet, an area rug, was floating and we were trying to walk on top of that.”

The family home was below the grade of the street at the corner of Gertrude Street and Lathom Road, a low-lying area that in those days before the dike was built endured an annual flooding. In the distance, he could hear the whistle sounding at the pulp mill where his father worked as a welder.

“It was pretty cold. I had no shoes on. No shirt. Just pants.”

The family, including five children, walked two blocks uphill as the waters continue to rise. The family piled into the bed of a pickup truck. They drove to a friend’s home to spend the night.

They awoke to a topsy-turvy world.

Cars had been jammed beneath houses, some of which had been moved the length of three football fields from their foundations. Furniture, caked in mud, rested on front lawns.

The Havard home, like so many others, was a mess

“We just shoveled everything we owned into the back of a truck,” he said, “and took it to the dump.”

The fire department hosed the interior of the house, so the family had rudimentary shelter. Soon after, they had a house built down the highway at Whiskey Creek, away from the 60-kilometre inlet that funneled roaring waters into an unsuspecting city.

Incredibly, no one died.

A report issued soon after the disaster by the province’s civil defence coordinator described one chilling close call.

A man raced out to save his new convertible only to see two children floating past on a log. He abandoned his car to rescue the children, pushing the log to high ground, by which time water was up to his chest.

Six waves washed over the land that night, part of a wave surge that lasted 18 hours. The first wave was eight feet. An hour later, a second wave, higher still, roared onto streets at 386 km/h (240 m.p.h.), “smash(ing) everything in its path.” Boats, buildings and automobiles were tossed about like plastic toys in a bathtub.

The waters did damage elsewhere.

At the Hesquiat village of Hot Springs Cove, northwest of Tofino, 16 of 18 houses were destroyed. About 40 people were rescued by boat.

At Amai, a logging hamlet on Kyuquot Sound, 37 residents were left homeless after their homes were destroyed. The waves also cut off their radio access. People spent two nights in the open.

At Zeballos, a one-time gold-mining village, some 30 homes were swept from their foundation. Silt and salt water caused damage to personal property. As a report on the disaster noted, “This group made its own emergency arrangements.”

Mr. Havard, an electrician by trade, is now a maintainence foreman for the school district. He has never lost his fear — or his respect — for the damage wrought by a tsunami.

“You cannot outrun it,” he said. “It just keeps coming and it doesn’t ever stop.”

Today, the city has a sophisticated tsunami warning system, including radio-controlled public-address speakers. When they sound, residents are advised to head for high ground, not to go to the water’s edge to wait their demise.