Newfoundland Tsunami – November 18, 1929on October 23, 2009 at 3:42 pm
On Monday, November 18, 1929, the earth rumbled and the waters rose on the Burin Peninsula in southern Newfoundland. A tsunami (a Japanese word meaning ‘harbour wave’), struck the peninsula’s shores. It was caused by an underwater earthquake offshore on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The tsunami came as a complete surprise to the residents of the Burin Peninsula. Most tsunamis occur in the region that encircles the Pacific Ocean.
The underwater earthquake originated at 44°69′ north latitude and 56° west longitude, along two fault planes about 250 kilometres (153 miles) south of the Burin peninsula. The tremor measured 7.2 on the Richter scale.
The disaster began around 5:00 p.m. as a violent earth tremble that lasted five minutes. Everyone was instantly both baffled and alarmed. People in St. John’s, 402 kilometres (250 miles) from the epicentre, thought the rumblings were the result of an accident in the shafts at the Bell Island mines in Conception Bay. Recovering from their initial fear, most inhabitants tried to put the tremor out of their minds as they continued their dinner preparations.
At around 7:30 p.m. a tsunami swept ashore on the Burin Peninsula. The waves, travelling at the astounding speed of 129 km/h (80 mph) from the epicentre, hit the peninsula at a speed of 105 km/h (65 mph). It affected more than 40 coastal communities. The November 22, 1929 editorial in the St. John’s Daily News described the event as follows:
Suddenly without warning, there is a roar of waters. Louder than that of the ordinary waves on the shore, it breaks on their ears, and then, with a shuddering crash, a fifteen foot wall of water beats on their frail dwelling, pouring in through door and window and carrying back in its undertow, home and mother and children!
All communication was cut off with the outside world. Moreover, there was at the time no road connecting Burin Peninsula to the rest of the province. Once the wave receded, overwhelmed survivors were forced to invent their own rescue plans.
Three days after the tsunami, on Thursday, the coastal steamer Portia made a scheduled stop at Burin’s altered port. An SOS message to St. John’s resulted in the arrival of the SS Meigle, filled with doctors, nurses, blankets and food.
The loss of property, originally estimated between $150,000 and $250,000, reached over $1 million in the aftermath. The boats, fishing gear, supplies and other industrial equipment of half of the wage earners were destroyed. Tsunami victims were not reimbursed for lost foodstuffs or winter fuel. Compensation was allowed for house repairs and lost boats.
The first official disaster fund for the emergency was established by a committee in St. John’s on November 25, 1929. The value of donations to the South Coast Disaster Committee, from the rest of Newfoundland, Canada, the United States and Britain, totalled more than $250,000.
The tsunami did irreparable damage, affecting 10,000 people in over 40 settlements. In the Burin Peninsula, 27 deaths were attributed to the tsunami; another victim died in 1933 from injuries sustained during the disaster. A tsunami generated by the same earthquake was also reported to have struck Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, drowning one individual there.