It was 305 years ago on Jan. 26, 1700 that the West Coast of Vancouver Island was rocked by an earthquake. As night descended on the Nuu-chah-nulth communities, deep within the ocean a few miles offshore, the entire Cascadia fault exploded with such force that boats were sunk and sailors were killed by a tsunami thousands of miles across the Pacific ocean in Japan.
In the Huu-ay-aht village of Anacla, people were just going to sleep in the longhouses when the quake hit. The ground heaved and rolled for more than half a minute. Many of the huge longhouses sank into the sand as it turned to liquid. When the rumbling stopped, people who hadn't heard the screams of those who sank into the sand figured the danger had passed, and started to go back to sleep. That's when the wave hit.
A wall of water estimated at over 50 feet swept through Anacla and other coastal villages drowning thousands of Nuu-chah-nulth-aht. In Anacla, only one person from a village of more than 600 survived.
Seven Huu-ay-aht villages were wiped out that night, according to Chief Councillor Robert Dennis, who was told the story by the late Chief Louie Nookmiis. Only the village of Malthsit on the east side of Pacheena Bay survived, since it was 75 feet up a mountainside.
The story has stayed a part of Huu-ay-aht collective memory for generations, passed down through potlatches and through families. Then in the 1990s, scientists actively studying Pacific Northwest earthquakes finally listened to the people, after finding corroborating documents and tell-tale environmental signs.
Because of Japanese maritime records, scientists confirmed Nuu-chah-nulth stories about that earthquake, which they now believed registered a magnitude 9, the highest measurement on the Richter scale. That quake is now understood to be one of the largest anywhere in the world, and the biggest known earthquake to strike the country now known as Canada.
In contrast, the earthquake that struck Indonesia in December 2004, killing 400,000, registered 8.6 on the Richter scale. In Anchorage in 1964 a quake was measured at 8.6, and the quake that killed 6,500 and injured 40,000 in Kobe, Japan in 1995 was a 7.0.
Because of the past devastation that occurred at Anacla, Dennis has been lobbying the provincial and federal governments to fund a move to higher ground.
The village of Anacla is still located in the estuarian flood plain of the Pacheena River at Pacheena Bay, and Dennis believes the community must be moved to the adjacent hillside before the next earthquake strikes.
The community has already developed plans for a subdivision surrounding the House of Huu-ay-aht on Huu-ay-aht land, and into lands currently held by Weyerhaeuser. They have applied to the federal government through the Additions to Reserves legislation, but their application has fallen on deaf ears.
"We were way ahead of our time," Dennis said of their plan, which was submitted in 1999. "They said they would not provide additional land so we can build a new subdivision and relocate our village. Even though we followed all their criteria, it needs political action," he said.
Given Canada's reaction to help the victims of the earthquake and Tsunami in southeast Asia, Dennis is hoping government will take another look at the plans.
"B.C.and Canada have a fiduciary obligation," said Dennis. "Someone will have to be responsible down the road. We've done our due diligence. They know the risk is there. They have to help us do something about it," he said, adding that all West Coast communities are facing the same situation.
"Look at places like Ahousaht, Opitsaht, Yuquot, Ehattis, Nuchatlaht, Esowista, and even Tofino and Ucluelet. All those places are on low-lying areas next to the ocean. They'll all be affected too," he said.
There is a huge plate of rock slipping underneath the continental plate. The eastern end of that rock gets heated to molten, and comes out in the form o volcano blasts at Mount St. Helens and elsewhere. Sometime over the past 300 years, that plate became snagged on the continental plate, and has been pushing an area stretching from Vancouver Island south to California upwards and eastward at a rate of 6 mm a year.
At some point, the continental plate is going to let go, and hundreds of years of built-up pressure is going to release along the giant, 1,100 km-long Cascadia fault, causing another huge earthquake where the land will suddenly drop three to six feet, followed by a massive tsunami.
Scientists believe such an event is "100 per cent certain", and happens here once every 500 years.
Global Positioning Satellite stations have recently been installed along the West Coast from Port Alberni to Japan to monitor the groans and strains of the zone, hoping to develop a greater understanding of how earthquakes happen, and if there are any warning signs that an earthquake is imminent.
"The question is not if, but when the next earthquake will occur," said Dennis. "We were ahead of our time when we approached the federal government with scientific data and our oral history requesting a review and assessment of the current Anacla village site. We proposed to move our village site from the Pachena River floodplain to higher ground on the northwest side of the river. In light of the tragic events in Asia, we feel that it is time to revisit our current situation and ensure that we are prepared for the next tsunami," he said.