Alexandra Pope, staff writer
March 26, 2011 — When it comes to the risk for tsunamis in Canada, most people think of the west coast. But the worst tsunami disaster in Canada's history actually occurred on the east coast, in southern Newfoundland.
He was only five years old, but Gus Etchegary still remembers that night in November 1929 when the sea swallowed up entire houses.
Like most people in the coastal community of St. Lawrence, Etchegary's family had no idea what was happening when a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck 200 km off the coast.
“Suddenly there is this roar and a rumbling loud noise and of course we immediately panicked,” he recalled in an interview with The Weather Network's Shelley Steeves.
“I had no idea in the world what it was; none whatsoever.”
Etchegary's sisters grabbed him and headed for higher ground, but many living along the Burin Peninsula stayed put, not knowing that giant waves were rushing towards them at 140 kilometres per hour.
When the tsunami hit just after nightfall, most people were caught completely off guard. Etchegary saw the tsunami's approach.
“The crest of the wave, it was white and big and the moon was shining on it and it was quite frightening,” he said.
Photos archived by Memorial University in Newfoundland show the result of the tsunami's destructive power. Entire houses were lifted off their foundations and carried out to sea with people still inside.
Etchegary remembers seeing elderly women and children praying together as they watched the devastation unfold.
The tsunami killed 28 people and left hundreds of homeless. It also caused $1 million in damages and decimated the local fishery, making it more difficult for survivors to rebuild their lives.
The recent magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan has renewed Canadian interest in disaster preparation at home.
Officials say residents of B.C.'s coast would have about 30 minutes to evacuate for higher ground if a major quake hit off the coast.
Major earthquakes in the mid-Atlantic are rare, but as Newfoundland's historic disaster shows, they can happen, so it's important to be prepared.