The Tsunami of 1929
On 18 November 1929 a tsunami struck Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula and caused considerable loss of life and property. Giant waves hit the coast at 40 km/hr, flooding dozens of communities and washing entire homes out to sea. The disaster killed 28 people and left hundreds more homeless or destitute. It was the most destructive earthquake-related event in Newfoundland and Labrador's history and occurred at the beginning of a worldwide depression.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (MF 334.1.01), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.
Despite the magnitude of the earthquake which precipitated the tsunami, no one in Newfoundland and Labrador anticipated the approaching danger. Large-scale seismic events are rare in eastern North America and virtually non-existent in Newfoundland and Labrador; in 1929, the country did not even possess a seismograph or tide gauge which could warn of the tsunami. Moreover, a recent storm had severed the single telegraph line linking the Burin Peninsula with the rest of the island; it was not until almost three days after the tsunami struck that the Squires government learned of the disaster and was able to send help.
'Grand Banks' Earthquake
At 5:02 p.m. on Monday 18 November 1929, an underwater earthquake occurred on the southern edge Grand Banks, about 265 kilometres south of Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula. It measured 7.2 on the Richter scale and was recorded in locations as far west as New York and Montreal and as far east as Portugal. On the Burin Peninsula, ground tremors lasted for about five minutes but did not cause any serious damage to houses or other structures. No one in the area had experienced an earthquake before, and although a few people understood what was happening, none imagined the tsunami that would follow.
On the Grand Banks, the earthquake triggered a sizeable underwater landslide, which in turn forced a series of large waves across the ocean's surface. The tsunami raced towards Newfoundland at speeds of up to 140 km/hr, before slowing to about 40 km/hr in shallower water. It registered on tide gauges in Bermuda, Portugal, the Azores, and along the United States' eastern coast. Newfoundland, however, had no knowledge of the giant waves that were quickly approaching its southern coast.
Tsunami Reaches Burin Peninsula
At about 7:30 p.m., residents along the Burin Peninsula noticed a rapid drop in sea level as the lowest point of the tsunami's first wave, known as a trough, reached the coast. As the water receded, it exposed portions of the ocean floor that were normally submerged and caused boats docked at various harbours to tumble over onto their sides. Minutes later, three successive waves hit the shore and water levels rose dramatically. In most places, the sea level swelled three to seven metres above normal, but in some of the peninsula's long narrow bays, such as at Port au Bras, St. Lawrence, and Taylor's Bay, the water rose by between 13 and 27 metres.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (MF 334.1.03), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.
The force of the waves lifted houses off their foundations, swept schooners and other vessels out to sea, destroyed stages and flakes, and damaged wharves, fish stores, and other structures along the peninsula's extensive coastline. Approximately 127,000 kilograms of salt cod were also washed away by the tsunami, which affected more than 40 communities on the Burin Peninsula. At Point au Gaul, giant waves destroyed close to 100 buildings as well as much of the community's fishing gear and food supplies; St. Lawrence lost all of its flakes, stages, and motor boats. Government assessment later placed property damage on the Burin Peninsula at $1 million.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (MF 391.1.01), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.
Worse than the damage to property, however, was the loss of human life. The tsunami killed 28 people in southern Newfoundland, which is more than any other documented earthquake-related event in Canadian history. Twenty-five victims drowned during the disaster (six bodies were washed out to sea and never found) and another three later died from shock or other tsunami-related conditions. The deaths were confined to six communities: Allan's Island, Kelly's Cove, Point au Gaul, Lord's Cove, Taylor's Bay, and Port au Bras. Fortunately, the tsunami struck on a calm evening when most people were still awake and could quickly react to the rising water; many managed to evacuate their homes and flee to higher ground.
It took only 30 minutes for the tsunami's three main waves to hit the Burin Peninsula and about two hours for water levels to return to normal. After that, thousands of confused and devastated survivors began to search for the dead or injured and to salvage what they could from rubble lining the coast. Search parties used any remaining boats to rescue survivors washed out to sea or trapped in buildings floating on the water. Hundreds of people lost their homes during the tsunami and had to sleep with relatives or neighbours. At Taylor's Bay, for example, only five of the community's 17 houses remained to accommodate survivors.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (MF 391.1.10), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.
Making matters worse, the Burin Peninsula had no way of communicating with the rest of the island because a weekend storm had damaged its main telegraph wire. The tsunami had also destroyed all land lines linking the peninsula's coastal communities, making communication there impossible as well. A boat was docked at Burin which had a wireless radio onboard, but no crewmember or townsperson knew how to operate it. Cut off from the outside world, survivors shared all available food, shelter, and medical supplies while waiting for help to arrive.
Early on the morning of November 21, the SS Portia made a scheduled stop at Burin harbour. Fortunately, the Portia had a wireless radio on board as well as an operator who immediately sent a wireless message to St. John's describing the situation. The ship's captain, Westbury Kean, later wrote to the Evening Telegram of his shock at seeing the damage: “Imagine our wonder and surprise on turning the point of the channel to be met by a large store drifting slowly along the shore seaward; then a short distance another store or a dwelling house until 9 buildings were counted, strewn along the shore before the harbour was reached. On reaching the harbour even a worse spectacle greeted the eyes.”