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B.C.'s emergency crews wait for the tsunami that never came

An April 2007) file photo shows a tsunami hazard warning sign located west of Sooke, B.C.

Deddeda Stemler/deddeda stemler The Globe and Mail

It was a long night on the West Coast, waiting for the tsunami that never came.

In the small harbour at Zeballos, at the end of a narrow inlet on Vancouver Island, the skippers of salmon fishing boats got up in the dark and prepared to put out to sea to face a wave they had been warned was coming in from the Pacific, triggered by a major earthquake in Japan.

In Bella Bella, in Queen Charlotte Sound on British Columbia's Central Coast, hospital staff began waking patients after midnight, in case they had to evacuate.

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In Queen Charlotte Village, on Haida Gwaii, emergency workers opened a reception centre in case anyone wanted to flee waterfront homes. Only one person showed up, but for many emergency co-ordinators, who were alerted by automated Provincial Emergency Program telephone calls, at about 12:30 a.m. Pacific Time, it was a sleepless night of waiting and watching, while official tsunami bulletins streamed in over the Internet.

For some, the warning came earlier through unofficial sources.

Perry Schmuck, general manager of the Long Beach Lodge Resort in Tofino, got his first warning just before 11 p.m. – but that was through a Facebook message from a friend at a Japanese resort.

The official version, from emergency workers in Tofino, came later at 2:50 a.m., by which time Mr. Schmunk had already decided to close down beach access – with the high-water mark just 10 metres from the lodge. Still, other than the temporary shutdown of the beach, there was little to show that the tsunami peril had come and gone. "Other than that, it's business as usual," he said.

Steve Waugh, emergency co-ordinator in Bella Coola, said he was alerted at about 12:30 a.m., and fire and police officials already had been warned by the time he called.

When the alert was upgraded to an advisory, at 1:50 a.m., RCMP officers visited the local dock to see if anyone was there, and the hospital in Bella Coola, which is on the waterfront, called in extra staff in case they had to evacuate.

In Zeballos, village emergency co-coordinator Claude Thibeault said police went boat to boat in the harbour, making sure the salmon fleet was up.

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"They were pretty calm," Mr. Thibeault said of the fishermen. "Some decided to stay in the bay, point into the wave, and just wait."

In Queen Charlotte Village, Bill Beamish, chief administrative officer, said his community was on constant alert until about 5:30 a.m., when word came that the expected wave had passed Langara Point, on the northern tip of Haida Gwaii, without any effect. Then people began to relax – although the tsunami alert remained in place throughout the day.

Along Highway 14, outside Victoria on Vancouver Island's West Coast, volunteer fire departments set up checkpoints to discourage motorists from stopping at the beaches.

One volunteer was looking for vehicles with surf boards. "We don't know what's going to happen," she warned. But at Jordan River, surfers in wetsuits were braving the cold waters, undeterred by the tsunami advisory.

As daylight broke in Port Renfrew, a small Vancouver Island community, Tom Mehler was standing on the single-lane Cove Bridge, staring out to sea.

"If this bay starts to empty, you have about three minutes to run," he said. It would be the first warning that a tsunami was in fact on its way.

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Sirens woke residents in the community around 2 a.m., a signal to move to higher ground. Mr. Mehler, the San Juan district emergency co-ordinator, spent the night helping about 60 families settle in at the local school and rec centre, where mats were spread on the floor for sleeping. Neighbours brought sandwiches. "People rely on themselves here," he said. "And each other."

John Clague, a Simon Fraser University professor, said the warning system in B.C. had worked well.

"The province is really responsible for issuing advisories and warnings. They basically have a feed into the tsunami warning systems into Palmer, Alaska and Honolulu … Right from the get-go it was kind of obvious it wasn't going to be as big outside the Japan coast as people had expected."

But they weren't taking any chances at the Provincial Emergency Co-ordination Centre, where staff worked overnight monitoring the progress of shock waves in the Pacific.

"It was pretty much all hands on deck last night," said the centre's executive director, Chris Duffy.

With a report from Brennan Clarke in Saanich, B.C.

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National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

News reporter

Based in Vancouver, Sunny has been with The Globe and Mail since November, 2010. More

B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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