In Friday’s Chronicle, we saw how various government agencies responded to the devastating tidal wave that struck the twin communities of Alberni and Port Alberni in the early morning hours of March 27, 1964 — Good Friday.
The following firsthand report by district social worker Mrs. Pat Adang covers the period between 11 p.m., March 27, through March 29 and provides a graphic on-the-scene description of how she and her fellow workers set the relief machinery in motion. In view of the fact that it has been predicted that we face a real threat of “the big one,” there’s much to be learned from the Albernis’ grim experience of 52 years ago…
“11:00 hours, March 27 — “We listened to TV of earthquake at Anchorage, Alaska and mention of tidal wave proceeding down coast of B.C. It was thought the effect would not be felt here as the Alberni Inlet stretches so far inland.
23:30 hours, March 28 — This worker received a phone call from a family (clients of ours) stating that a high tide had washed over the floor of their house on Victoria Quay. They asked if we would come and help them. They weren’t sure whether they should stay at home or whether we could find another place for them overnight. Worker drove down to assess the situation and found evidence that the water had been about a foot over their floorboards — shoes and some clothing and food were soaked. We helped them move as much as possible to high ground at the roadside and then asked people across the street if they would help them out overnight as our clients’ houses had a shaky foundation and it was too dark to see how seriously it had been damaged. We went back to the house with the 16-year-old boy to load the car with bedding and rest of clothing and helped carry out the TV set. Asked other lads on the street to make sure everyone in the adjacent houses was awake.
Some of the Alberni Valley Volunteer Rescue Squad were coming along the street and asked if more help was needed. They then carried on to the corner of River Road and Beaver Creek where RCMP officers were asking anyone going out River Road to waken people along the route as they had heard another wave was expected.
We thought it best to get more help so went to the nearest pay phone at the Arlington Hotel to call the Salvation Army and Civil Defence people. The hotel lobby had started to fill with women and children and the hotelkeeper was arranging for them to bed down in the lobby for the night. These people had come from homes directly along the edge of the river.
We contacted Capt. Roed of the Salvation Army and then tried to get Mayor Hammer who, we learned, was out of town. As Mr. Thurston, former CD chief, was in hospital we were at a loss to know who else to phone. Mrs. Hammer suggested Dr. Reynolds, a Port Alberni alderman, who we were able to reach by phone and gave him the message that there had been a minor wave and further high water was expected.
We then returned to intersection where police and the rescue squad personnel were directing people. We asked if help was needed and were asked to check an elderly couple on River Road who earlier seemed loathe to leave their cabin. We went out to do this and passed people here and there along the road, standing by cars talking about whether they should go back to their homes or stay out — as the water had receded as fast as it had come. The police and rescue squad had already been along the route and the old couple we were concerned with must have decided to leave as there was no one there when we knocked.
Since we know that Brown Road, one block directly behind River Road, always floods to some extent at high tide in spring, we thought it best to alert the people there. It was about 1:15 a.m. We went to the only house showing a light, roused the sole occupant and suggested she get dressed in case it might be necessary to move out. We used her phone to call the other two families whose names we knew in the area. Told them we did not wish to alarm them unnecessarily but there was a warning out that a tidal wave might come, and it was best to have everyone awakened.
We helped the first woman into the car, preparing to take her up the street to her son’s home, and while she sat in the car, the two men from the families we had phoned and this worker started knocking on doors to awaken the other residents…as I called across the street to ask one of the men if the house in question was occupied, my eye was caught by a low white line that looked like a six-inch-high veil of mist approaching from the direction of the river. I shouted to the man nearest it that it might be water, but it was slightly foggy and hard to see, and he thought it was mist.
In about 30 seconds it was at our feet and welling up, and we yelled to the nearest people who were on a low verandah with three youngsters to get in the car. As soon as everyone crammed in I drove off, but I could only go about 10 feet when the water flooded the engine and the car stalled. At first we jumped out and lifted the children on[to] the car roof but realized that if the water continued to rise that would be useless so, instead, decided to get to the nearest high porch.
We waded up to our thighs through the water and managed to get above it. By this time the water was about three feet deep in this area, which is a large flat piece of ground, causing a quicker levelling out of the water. We missed the full brunt of the wave. There were three people in their 70s, a young man and his wife and their baby and two little boys on the porch.
One of the men had a flashlight and it was decided he should shine it on the water where it was coming up the steps, and if it reached the top step we would have to break into the house and climb up to the top level of the roof if possible. The owners were away but a large glass window was adjacent to the door and entry would have been fairly easy.
(To be continued)