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Emergency response under scrutiny as B.C. tsunami evacuees return home Add to ...

Tsunami warnings that were issued after a strong earthquake off the northwest coast of British Columbia have been lifted, allowing people who had moved to higher ground to return to their homes and assess what so far appears to be limited damage.

As they expressed relief that the feared inundation hadn’t come, residents from affected communities also voiced concerns about whether the province had acted quickly enough to get word out about the quake.

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Another 6.4-magnitude aftershock rattled the region just before noon Sunday, at 11:54 a.m. PT, southwest of Sandspit on Haida Gwaii, but no tsunami warnings were issued in relation to that incident.

In B.C., local governments lead the initial response to emergencies and disasters. They are required by law to have emergency plans in place and to maintain an emergency-management organization.

Emergency Management B.C., a provincial agency, provides advisories of active emergencies.

In Tofino, about 45 minutes passed before emergency responders – who’d gathered as soon as they read alerts about the quake from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association – heard from provincial officials, mayor Perry Schmunk said on Sunday.

During that period, Tofino launched its own response, sounding alarms and using a subscription telephone service to tell residents to move to higher ground.

In the end, such precaution proved unnecessary as no big waves hit the town. But Mr. Schmunk sees the exercise as an opportunity to potentially fine tune the system.

It was about 11 p.m. – nearly three hours after the quake – before the province held a detailed telephone briefing with emergency-response teams from affected communities, Mr. Schmunk said.

That timing could be the result of provincial officials dealing with communities that were closer to the quake zone, Mr. Schmunk speculated, adding that he hopes to get more information in coming days.

“If there was a lesson learned, I would want to have a conversation with the province to see if there is any way to have an earlier conversation. Because let’s say hypothetically it was more serious – that phone call [with provincial officials] happened at 11 p.m.,” he said. “The [highest] wave hit Tofino at 10:04 p.m.”

The province will review its response times, said Shirley Bond, the minister responsible for public safety.

“We’ll look at response times and information flow, if we can improve it we’re going to do that,” Ms. Bond said Sunday from Whistler. “There were a couple of difficulties. We get our technical information from other sources, one of those websites had a glitch last night and that did cause a short delay.”

That hiccup was evident on Twitter, where several users complained that it took the Emergency Info B.C. account nearly an hour on Saturday to post information about the earthquake, resulting in a response on the account: “We do not compete with media (or Twitter) but we do confirm info with B.C./Ottawa experts.”

Local communities carried out their emergency response plans successfully, Ms. Bond said.

“We’re very pleased with the response. They know their areas the best, they have their plans in place and they executed them well last night.”

The magnitude-7.7 earthquake hit near Haida Gwaii at 8:04 pm PT Saturday and was followed by several strong aftershocks. Several communities, including Masset on Haida Gwaii, were evacuated as a precaution. There were no reports of series injuries or major damage.

Tsunami warnings were issued for the North Coast, the Haida Gwaii islands, parts of the central B.C. coast and the Alaskan coast.

A tsunami warning for was also issued for Hawaii, with at least 100,000 people being advised to move to higher ground, but that warning was cancelled early Sunday morning.

Also Sunday, a minor earthquake rattled Southern California, shaking buildings in downtown Los Angeles.

All tsunami notices for the B.C. coast and the rest of North America were cancelled by Sunday morning.

In Tofino, Mr. Schmunk said he was pleased with residents’ response to the community advisories to move to higher ground, noting that residents took the advice seriously even if they hadn’t felt the quake.

“We tested our system and people responded to it,” Mr. Schmunk said. “This is the best-case scenario. We tested our system, everyone responded and it ended up without incident.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

Follow us on Twitter: @wendy_stueck, @justine_hunter

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