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Port Alberni woman recalls fleeing 1964 tsunami in rowboat after quake

Lea Gardner remembers getting in a rowboat with her husband, three young children and the family dog to flee a tsunami that hit Vancouver Island 54 years ago.

Lea Gardner remembers getting in a rowboat with her husband, three young children and the family dog to flee a tsunami that hit Vancouver Island 54 years ago.

But the 83-year-old Port Alberni resident says she calmly slept through Tuesday’s tsunami warning that prompted evacuations after a magnitude 7.9 earthquake off the coast of Alaska at 1:31 a.m.

“I never even heard the alarms last night,” said Gardner, who still lives in Port Alberni but on higher ground than she did in March 1964 when the tsunami hit.

“We didn’t know anything about it until my husband’s friend phoned and asked how we made out.”

Sirens blared in many B.C. coastal communities and officials banged on doors to rouse people from their sleep in the middle of the night before the warning was lifted about 4:30 a.m.

Mayor Mike Ruttan, who was 13 years old and living on the city’s outskirts in 1964, said officials decided to set off the emergency evacuation sirens warning many of Port Alberni’s 17,500 residents to leave their homes for safer areas.

“There were people pushing buggies. There were people on bikes,” he said. “There were people walking. Lots of people were in their cars and there were also people in their cars who were perilously short of gasoline.”

Gardner said the warning brought back memories of the night she and her family were awakened in 1964 by neighbours who said a tsunami was about to hit Port Alberni, located on a 40-kilometre inlet where the power of incoming tsunami waves are magnified by a funnel effect.

“(The neighbour) and my husband went down River Road and met logs ... and water and the police came along and told them to get to higher ground,” she said. “So they just turned around and came back to our place and we got our boat.”

Gardner said her family and neighbours rowed to a nearby home on higher ground where they were eventually picked up by family members who lived high above the area where the tsunami hit.

“The neighbours had grandparents out from Saskatchewan and we packed them up and their daughter and we rowed up to some friends up the street,” she said. “In the boat was our youngest, who was two years old at the time, and Linda and Karen who were six and eight, and our neighbour’s daughter and a dog.”

A report in the Alberni Valley Times newspaper said Gardner’s husband Joe decided to put the family’s new vacuum cleaner on top of a bed just before leaving their home.

Gardner said her house sustained water damage but because it was undergoing massive renovations it was livable after the tsunami. She said she and her husband now live in a seniors complex on a hill in Port Alberni.

Gardner said she does not live in fear of natural disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis.

“I never worry about it. If there’s an earthquake. These things happen,” she said.

The tsunami that hit Port Alberni in March 1964 was caused by a magnitude 9.2 earthquake off Alaska.

Two waves gathered force as they raced up the Alberni Inlet, sweeping away houses. The tsunami did not cause any deaths in Port Alberni.

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