Looking out over the scenic cove of Port au Bras on a beautiful day now it’s hard to imagine a tsunami roaring in bringing death and destruction but that’s exactly what happened here less than a hundred years ago.
Jess and I were doing a bit of touring around the Burin Peninsula last weekend when we discovered a memorial to the tsunami in Port au Bras near Marystown. I normally associate tsunamis with the Pacific coastline, so I was surprised to learn of one happening in Newfoundland.
On Monday 18 November 1929 an offshore earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2 occurred about 20km beneath the sea floor 250 km south of Newfoundland. This in turn triggered an enormous landslide in the sea bed and the resulting tsunami crashed into the South Coast of the Burin Peninsula, drowning 27 people, and causing $2 million in damages.
At about 5.00pm on that fateful day, severe earth tremors were felt throughout Newfoundland. Most people shrugged it off and continued about their daily business. Very few anticipated the impending danger and two and half hours later at 7.30pm three huge waves each measuring 3 to 4 meters high struck the coast at speeds of more than 100 kph.
The waves thundered up narrow channels and into bays over a half-hour period lifting boats 5m high, snapping their anchor chains and tossing the craft onshore or sinking them. Homes were ripped from their foundations; most were destroyed. Others were swept back and forth out to sea by the tide.
It took about two hours for the water levels to return to normal and along with the many lives lost, the tsunami destroyed many homes, fishing equipment and winter provisions, leaving many families destitute.
A gale blew up during the night, dropping temperatures and adding sleet and snow to the survivors’ misery. The telegraph lines were broken and all communication to the outside world was lost.
It wasn’t until three days later when a ship making a scheduled stop at Burin Harbour discovered the extent of the devastation and was finally able to notify authorities.
One of the rescue ships found a house far out at sea. A kerosene lamp was still burning in a top-storey room. Downstairs a mother and her child lay drowned by the swirling waters.
In one settlement a house was found in a pond 300 feet from its original site. The building was smashed and half submerged. On the lower floor a mother and her three children were drowned while upstairs a small baby lay in its cot unharmed.
One man who had been swept out to sea, swam to a floating house only to find that it was his own. The house was later towed back to shore and replaced on its foundation.
The tsunami did irreparable damage along the Burin Peninsular, affecting 10,000 people in over 40 settlements and it was a wonder that more lives were not lost.
In Port au Bras where Jess and I visited, seven lives were lost. The town was completely swamped by the waves. Many people were only rescued after they had been adrift on their dwellings for hours, their cries for help attracting rescuers along the shore.