On a typical day, the waters of Alberni Inlet are like glass. But 55 years ago to this day, they were churning.

“At first it just came really slowly just like a super high tide. We thought a fire hydrant broke at first,” said Bob Cole.

Just before dinnertime on March 27, 1964, a massive 9.2 magnitude earthquake ripped across southern Alaska.

“This was the world’s second largest recorded earthquake,” said John Cassidy, a seismologist with Natural Resources Canada.

“It released at least 500 years worth of energy accumulation, within a few minutes.”

The shaking set in motion a tsunami that roared down the Pacific Coast, and funnelled into the Alberni Inlet.

“We watched the river go bone dry between waves. It looked like you could walk across it!” said Cole.

“Then the water started coming and stuff floating up the river at a rapid rate including a white pickup truck.”

At the waves’ highest, they hit four meters tall, and by witness accounts, the sea sloshed around like water in a bathtub for around seven hours.

Cole, just a teenager at the time, had borrowed his parent’s car for the night on a date and ran for cover uphill.

“I called my parents and said I’m gonna be late, the car broke down and there’s been a tidal wave,” said Cole laughing.

“And my parents said you’ve had excuses before, but this tops them all.”

Somehow, no one was killed in Port Alberni, but the rushing water bent bridges, swept houses easily off their foundations, and lifted cars like they were feathers.

And just last year, the town faced another tsunami warning triggered by another earthquake in Alaska.

Alarms went off, and residents of Port Alberni began to head for higher ground, causing congestion and confusion.

A recent UBC report used Port Alberni’s 2018 tsunami response as a case study and found that changes to the town’s emergency response are needed.

“It’s the need for tighter and more collaborative communication of what the risk is, when the evacuation call needs to be made, and who needs to evacuate,” said Alexa Tanner, a UBC researcher who co-authored the study with postdoctoral research fellow Ryan Reynolds.

Since then, the city of Port Alberni is developing a mass communication system to keep people better informed next time.

“Once we get a lot of the systems in place, you can expect some better notifications, quicker notifications, better direction on where to go and what to do,” said Kelly Gilday, manager of protective services with the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District.

And scientists say those changes couldn’t come sooner because it’s not a case of if, but when another tsunami or earthquake strikes the west coast.

Kori Sidaway