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1964 tsunami: Port Alberni acts on lessons learned from tidal wave

Yvette and Simon Gaetz and their son Wayne, right, who was born two weeks after the 1964 tsunami in Port Alberni, take tsunami preparedness seriously. - SHAYNE MORROW/Special to the News
Yvette and Simon Gaetz and their son Wayne, right, who was born two weeks after the 1964 tsunami in Port Alberni, take tsunami preparedness seriously.
— image credit: SHAYNE MORROW/Special to the News

 

In the summer of 1964, the Provincial Emergency Program published an extensive report on the Port Alberni Tsunami in its Civil Defence Circular.

The circular provided a chronology of the events leading up to the tsunami, the destruction it caused and the remarkably effective response by a disparate and uncoordinated team of emergency personnel, civil authorities, social services, citizens, local businesses and government agencies. The report made a series of recommendations to improve emergency response and to beef up building codes. Notably, the report also recommended the creation of a “loud and distinctive” Civil Disaster warning system.

“Since then, everybody has done something,” city engineer Guy Cicon said. “The regional district has built an Emergency Operations Centre, there have been improvements to emergency social services, the fire department and at the radio station.”

Former Alberni city manager Jim Sawyer said the catastrophic damage to homes and buildings along the south side of River Road led the province to prohibit any further development there. The now-demolished Clutesi Haven Marina building, originally a machine shop, did survive. Everything else was either washed away or demolished by Canadian Army engineers.

“That meant the city had to acquire the properties and we had to raise the road bed on River Road,” Sawyer said.

Much of the work was needed for flood control in any case. Over the years, the dike system was extended to protect Kitsuksis and Lugrin Creeks, and the Margaret Street pumping station was installed to pump storm and floodwater across the river to the repaired sewage lagoons.

“The province also began to go through historic records of tides and tsunamis, and they discovered that the 1960 earthquake in Chile had also caused a tidal surge in Alberni Inlet,” Sawyer said. That led the province to call for stiffer building codes in inundation zones.

But that program shifted when computer modeling revealed that a major earthquake right offshore could cause a tsunami far greater than in 1964, according to city manager Ken Watson.

“The potential height was so high there was no way we could build strong enough to withstand it,” Watson said. “Now the focus is to get the people out rather than worrying about their houses.”

Watson said he was horrified when, shortly after he arrived in Port Alberni to take over as city engineer in 1986, there was a tsunami alert for the Alberni Inlet.

“There were people going down to the waterfront to watch it come in,” he said. “A tsunami is something to go away from, not go to watch it.”

Working with then-fire chief Pete Geddes, the city finally installed the now familiar tsunami warning system in the early 1990s.

In recent years, the city has enacted a Flood Plain Bylaw to regulate development in the inundation zone, as well as posting visible signage of flood zones and evacuation routes.

Recently, the city undertook a public education campaign, with city staff visiting homes to deliver information packages on what to do in the event of an impending tsunami.

They found an enthusiastic audience in survivors Simon and Yvette Gaetz, who now live on Golden Street. “We each have a survival kit right by the front door,” Yvette said, flashing the ‘HELP’ and ‘OK’ signs from the city package. “We live well above the high water mark, but this is a dead-end street, so if there’s a tsunami on the way, we’re getting out of here.”

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