Around midnight on March 28th, 1964, a powerful tsunami struck Port Alberni, wreaking havoc on the small inland town. Despite being situated far from the west coast of the island––where the tsunami struck––the town’s position at the end of a long inlet allowed the wave to be carried 40 kilometres inland, where, due to the inlet’s funnelling effect, it reached the town at a greatly increased size and force.
The tsunami was generated when a 9.2 earthquake struck Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 27, at 5:36 p.m, generating a tidal wave that was pushed south-east. The earthquake was so powerful it ripped open the ground in Anchorage, Alaska (120 Kilometres from the epicentre), and left one side of the street several feet higher than that on the other side of the crevice. Soil in some areas turned to jelly due to the quake. Many buildings that were not built to withstand the force of the colliding continental plates collapsed.
The earthquake lasted four and a half minutes, and demolished some of Alaska’s largest and most beautiful cities. It remains the most powerful earthquake in U.S. history, and is the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the world.
While the earthquake itself was devastating, much of the destruction it caused was due to the tsunami the quake generated. This tsunami was particularly powerful in Port Alberni. When it struck around midnight, the town experienced a series of waves, the first measuring 2.44 metres (8 feet), and causing flooding. One hour later, another wave, at 3.05 metres (10 feet), lifted houses off their foundations, and moved cars and trees around like bath toys.
The town would still be hit by four more waves throughout the night. More waves came in at 3:00 a.m., 4:30 a.m., 5:15 a.m., and 6:45 a.m., all measuring between 1.52 metres (5 feet) and 1.83 metres (6 feet).
The tsunami’s damage to the town was considerable. One reporter, Ian McDonald, recalled: “From the air, Alberni Canal looked as though a giant had spilled his matches––thousands of logs and broken booms littered the water.”
Approximately 300 homes and businesses were damaged in the Port Alberni area, costing a total of about $5 million in 1964. While 15 people were killed by the quake, the tsunami killed 124 more between Alaska and California.