Alberni Valley Museum
Port Alberni, British Columbia

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The Great Tsunami of 1964

 

 

Bob Gray - Interview

The Alberni Valley Rescue Squad, the RCMP, the Volunteer Fire Department and many others did a wonderful job in saving lives and helping people in trouble north of Roger Creek. Another part of Port Alberni got hit very badly that night. The waterfront and the area of the city bound by 5th Avenue, Redford St. and Dunbar St., including the Somass Lumber Mill, the Pulp and Paper Mill, Barclay Hotel, the Bluebird Motel, Alberni Engineering, Argyle Machine works and the corner of Redford St. and 3rd Avenue.

South of Roger Creek, which was Port Alberni in 1964, was a different situation with the industrial areas of the Waterfront being looked after by the respective crews. The civilian areas were looked after by the City crews and local residents. I was Assistant Superintendent of Port Alberni City Works in 1964 and also a volunteer member of the Alberni Valley Rescue Squad.

Malcolm Hedman was the Co-ordinator of the A.V.R.S. in 1964 and he received the message from Corporal Roy Woodfin of the Alberni RCMP Detachment that an earthquake in Alaska had triggered a Tsunami and we could expect a tidal wave to hit Port Alberni very soon. He phoned all of the 25 members of the A.V.R.S. to come to the Rescue Hall at the athletic field as soon as possible. I received the call at home and jumped in my City pick-up because I had a radio telephone in it and headed down 3rd Avenue hill to the A.V.R.S. hall. It was a dry night and as I drove by the Barclay Hotel I noticed the asphalt was wet by Bute St. to Redford St. My thoughts were that the firemen had been using a fire hydrant in the area because my mind had still not really thought of a tidal wave hitting us.

The first wave, which I had seen by the Barclay Hotel, had come in and gone out by this time. When I arrived at the Rescue Hall I was told a bigger wave was expected. I suddenly realized that the Port Alberni City Works Yard (at Napier and 4th Avenue) with all its machinery, trucks and buildings would be in the path of any tidal wave that came up the Alberni Canal.

The City Works location had been flooded over the past years with an extra high tide and heavy rain storm happening at the same time. Any rise of the water in the canal would certainly be disastrous in the low lying areas of Port Alberni. I told Malcolm Hedman that I would have to go back to the City Works Yard and call out a City Works crew to save what we could. He said AOkay, Bob@, but to give him a call if we needed the Rescue Squad to help out. I said I would and took off to 4th Avenue and Napier. I immediately phoned City Works Superintendent Len Crowshaw and told him a tidal wave was expected. I started phoning City Works employees and soon Len arrived and we split our lists of employees and phoned everyone we could find at home.

Two of the first I phoned were Jim McKelvey and Albert Grace who came down together in the same vehicle. On the way to the City Works Yard they went to the foot of Argyle first and they were able to see the water rising as the 2nd tidal wave was now coming in. They hurried to get to the City Works Yard and when they came onto 3rd Avenue they saw off Kingsway Street a young man coming down 3rd Avenue hill in a Volkswagen car and all of a sudden he hit the water, which was about 3 ft. deep by now, and his Volkswagen bug actually floated. It started going in circles like a boat that had lost its rudder, and finally it ended up in front of the Maybette Coffee Shop which was situated in a building across 3rd Avenue from where Smitty=s Restaurant is now. John Fowlie=s Auto Court was situated where Smitty's is now. John kept permanent residents in his Auto Court and all 8 cabins were badly flooded. Residents lost all their furniture and personal belongings.

Meanwhile Jim and Albert continued onto City Works via 4th Avenue and I sent them to take vehicles and go where they could help stranded people. Jim McKelvey remembers going by Stewart and Hudson building and hearing plate glass windows in the front bursting outward making loud noises like a shot gun firing. He said the water must have entered the back of the building and forced the front windows out as the water rose. He remembers a great number of paint cans floating out onto 3rd Avenue.

Jim and Albert helped anyone they could get to high ground but were hampered without a boat. Albert Grace knew where there was an aluminum boat stored in a private carport on 4th Avenue. He and Jim commandeered it and were then able to get around faster.

The most vivid rescue Jim can remember was getting a mother and two small children off the top of a Volkswagen van on 4th Avenue and taking them to higher ground up Bute Street. As a Volkswagen is hard to climb up on you can use your imagination as to how that young woman got her two children and herself on top of that van. Jim McKelvey said the mother was sitting on top of the van and the van was sitting in about 8 ft. of water. Can you imagine the terror that woman must have felt. Remember this was in the dark with very cold water still rising. Talk about a hero, she deserved a medal, but things were happening so fast nobody even thought to get her name. Speaking of medals, many ordinary people did some very brave deeds that night without thinking of themselves. A disaster such as the 1964 tidal wave brought the people of Port Alberni and Alberni closer together. Mayor Bishop of Alberni once stated the 1964 tidal wave did more to bring the amalgamation of the two cities to a successful conclusion in 1967 than any other event. As people were either carried to safety or made their own way to higher ground up along 5th Avenue or up Redford Street, other citizens had arrived from areas that weren=t flooded to offer to take flooded out people into their homes for the night. I'm sure some of them kept flooded out families until they could get accommodations many days later.

After Len and I had called the crew out and set up a command post at the City Works Office we went down to the Argyle Street waterfront to see if help was needed in that area. We phoned everyone we could think of that had businesses along the waterfront that might be damaged by the tidal wave. The Pulp Mill, Somass Mill, A.P.D. and the Plywoods were al flooded but they had their own crews on duty to rescue and salvage what they could by shutting down electric motors, etc.

Dave Russell was Purchasing Agent/Dispatcher for the Port Alberni City Works in 1964 so he was called out to run the phones in the Works Yard Office. He remembered a gentleman that lived on 4th Avenue coming into his office after the water went down crying his eyes out and saying that he had dropped a baby in the flood. After we had matters more or less under control the following morning, Len Crowshaw asked me to go out to the City Sewer Lagoon across the Somass River to see the damage. We went out and found the Sewer Lagoon had a section of it knocked out by the tidal wave pushing a large amount of logs from the boom through it. The same logs knocked out a large section of G4 M&B Pulp Mill pipeline. This 2" steel pipeline was built on pilings about 6 ft. above ground level.

After the flooded valley was declared a disaster area the Canadian Army stationed at Chilliwack and Victoria were sent in to help in any way they could. The City Works were offered men and 3 yard army dump trucks to help repair the damaged Sewer Lagoon berm. We supplied a loader and gravel from an adjacent gravel pit and a grader to level the loads as the army trucks dumped them. My son, Bob Jr., was in the local Army Cadets at the time, and he spent some days with the army and other cadets to help people clean up throughout the area. My daughter Brenda's memory of the tidal wave was that she saw me drive down 3rd Avenue in the dark towards the Pulp Mill and she thought I was going to drown as the area was filled with steam, fog and some pretty wild noises. She said she had bad dreams about the tidal wave many years after. My son Brent remembers being very scared as he could see the Pulp Mill from our house.

Everyone I have talked to about their part in the tidal wave of 1964, or the clean up afterwards, stressed the self help and the tremendous offer to help others. One person said it all, It was a coming together of the human spirit.

 

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