Love to Japan and remembering the East Coast tsunami of 1929

After seeing the photographs coming out of Japan today after the 8.9 magnitude earthquake, I am relieved to live where I do, far from the Pacific Ring of Fire that plagues humans with deadly earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes.

Yet deep down, I know that here on the East Coast of Canada, we aren’t immune to natural disasters.

One of the most enduring images of the Burin disaster: a schooner towing a house.

I like to think, in my safe little bubble world, that most of the natural disasters we face include snow.  And as long as you keep winter tires on your car and stay off the roads where it’s blizzarding, you should make out all right.

While the East Coast is unlikely to face a catastrophic disaster any time soon, it’s surprising to learn how many earthquakes Eastern Canada does get.  And how deadly they can be.

One of the biggest natural disasters happened in Newfoundland in 1929.

On November 18, few people on the East Coast paid any mind to the shaking of dishes in cupboards, especially on the eastern edge of Newfoundland (still not a Canadian province, for you history junkies out there.)  It wasn’t that the shaking was bad: in fact, it measured 7.2 on the Richter scale and was felt in such cities as New York and Montreal.

Evidence of the tidal wave which struck the Burin Peninsula.

However, Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula wasn’t a densely populated area.  They were baffled by the quake because seismic activity is rare on the East Coast.  And of course there would not have been more than houses and shops and boats populating the area.  Damage was minimal.  Most families probably went on eating their supper, then settled in for an autumn evening.  Babies were put to bed.  Knitting was taken up.

Many houses were simply moved by the water and deposited elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the earthquake caused more disruption on the Grand Banks.  Underwater landslides birthed huge waves which raced towards the Burin Peninsula.

Tide gauges as far away as Portugal and Bermuda picked up the activity, but Newfoundland was not prepared.  It did not have a tidal wave warning system.  Tidal waves had not been a problem in the past.  It was unthinkable.

Around 7:30 in the evening, a couple of hours after the earthquake, Newfoundlanders close to the water noticed the sea plummet, exposing ocean floor and rolling docked boats, a prelude to the oncoming tidal wave.

One of the destroyed homes in Newfoundland.

Not long after that, minutes maybe, the water returned with a vengeance, rising about 3 to 7 metres higher than normal.

In a few areas where the water had an opportunity to be funneled down narrow bays, the water rose as much as 13 metres in a series of waves.

It simply carried away wooden houses, shops, and fish flakes within reach.  Even though it was not a populated area (a la Japan), 28 people were killed.

The damage was pegged at $1 million dollars, which, given the year (1929), is high.  Not only did the Newfoundlanders lose their homes, much of their livelihood was destroyed.  Fishing was the economic driver of the province, and most fish flakes and warehouses were situated right on the waterfront.

They rescued as many people as they could, going out in boats to fetch people from floating houses and debris.  Six people were never found.

There were some wonders.  A general store was deposited 60 metres inland from its original home.  Amazingly enough, all the stock was still on the shelves.

A baby was rescued from the second floor of a house; unhappily, the rest of the baby’s family had been on the first floor and did not survive.

The unfortunate thing for the communities: there was no way to get word out to St. John’s and the rest of the world about the disaster.  Telegraph was the way people communicated at the time, and like telephone today, it relied on wires.  The wires, of course, were broken.  A routine stop by a ship three days later (a ship which had a telegraph on board!) was the first contact the Burin Peninsula people had with the outside world.

Many people from around the globe aided the Newfoundlanders, though the Great Depression hit the island hard.  It’s thought the tsunami may have even disrupted the local fisheries at a time when people needed work the most.

Even though Japan may seem far away, the damage generated by earthquakes is not unfamiliar to us.  Haiti, Christchurch, Japan… all of those places do not seem so far away when the East Coast too is at risk for natural disasters.

No doubt you will be shocked when you see the pictures out of Japan today.  The sights are out of this world.  Not only did the earthquake damage buildings and set them afire, low lying areas are still drenched in water from the tsunami.  The death toll has not climbed yet, but it is hard to believe many people from the coast survived the awful devastation.  For the survivors, there isn’t a lot left between the quake, the fires, and the tidal wave.

There’s not much we can do from Canada, except donate what we can when we can.  If everyone in the world who could made one small donation, not only would the money help regenerate damage areas; it would prove that globalization isn’t about multi-national companies expanding to all areas of the world.  It’s about realizing we are one large community of humans, especially when things go wrong.  Support Japan, Christchurch, and Haiti, which is still rebuilding from their earthquake.  Take that helplessness you feel and make a donation.  Do something.

Log onto the website of the Canadian Red Cross.

* * *

Resources on the Grand Banks earthquake of 1929:

The 1929 Magnitude 7.2
“Grand Banks” earthquake
and tsunami
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