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Tsunami scare puts B.C.’s emergency warning protocol to the test

Brennan Caton, 12, Misty Lawson, left, and Courtney Caton listen to the radio for coast guard updates on the tsunami warnings for Tofino inside their home Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. A tsunami warning issued for coastal British Columbia was cancelled Tuesday morning after people living along parts of the province's coast evacuated to higher ground when a powerful earthquake struck off Alaska.

Melissa Renwick/The Canadian Press

Shortly after 2 a.m., Luke Swan was awoken by a brief call from Emergency Management BC telling the Ahousaht councillor that a tsunami may be inbound, potentially sending towering waves down the Pacific coast toward the First Nation community just north of Tofino, B.C.

He leaped out of bed to sound the alarm. Then he and other members of Ahousaht's volunteer fire department began running house to house in the town of Maaqtusiis, knocking on doors to make sure everyone was up. Band members pitched in, honking their horns.

"People were panicking and crying," he says, but within 18 minutes, all but two of the 900 band members living in the Vargas Island community were settled into three muster stations on high ground.

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In the coastal capital city of Victoria, about 200 kilometres to the southeast, Jennifer Robyn was awakened at 4 a.m. by a friend calling from Tofino with a warning.

Ms. Robyn and her husband, who live one block from the water in the James Bay neighbourhood, quickly packed an emergency kit and bundled their nine-week-old baby out to their car. But they had no clear idea of where to go.

0

500

Earthquakes

KM

DATE

MAGNITUDE

2

Jan. 8-13

4

Jan. 14-20

6

Jan. 21-22

Jan. 23

8

Magnitude 7.9 earthquake reported

Tsunami warning was

issued for B.C. Coast

Prince Rupert

Vancouver

Bella Bella

B.C.

Port Hardy

Tofino

U.S.

Victoria

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

ALASKA EARTHQUAKE CENTER;

THE WEATHER NETWORK

0

500

Earthquakes

KM

DATE

MAGNITUDE

2

Jan. 8-13

4

Jan. 14-20

6

Jan. 21-22

Jan. 23

8

Magnitude 7.9 earthquake reported

Tsunami warning was

issued for B.C. Coast

CANADA

Prince Rupert

Vancouver

Bella Bella

B.C.

Port Hardy

Tofino

U.S.

Victoria

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ALASKA EARTHQUAKE CENTER;

THE WEATHER NETWORK

RUSSIA

0

500

Earthquakes

KM

DATE

Jan. 8-13

Jan. 14-20

Jan. 21-22

Jan. 23

MAGNITUDE

2

4

6

8

Magnitude 7.9 earthquake reported

Tsunami warning was

issued for B.C. Coast

CANADA

Prince Rupert

Vancouver

Bella Bella

B.C.

Port Hardy

Tofino

U.S.

Victoria

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ALASKA EARTHQUAKE CENTER; THE WEATHER NETWORK

"We got out of the house in nine minutes; we went to Craigdarroch Castle, which is the first place I could think of that was high ground," Ms. Robyn said. "I was a bit shocked that no one else in the neighbourhood seemed to be aware."

Scores of other residents on the B.C. coast followed similar routines. But amid relief after the warning was cancelled, there were questions over a patchwork warning approach.

B.C.'s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said his government will conduct a review of the province's emergency response, but he believes the system worked "very well."

The province co-ordinates emergency plans, however local governments have leeway to execute their own systems. "We were alerted, they were alerted, and as a result people got alerts and we saw communities up and down the coast were evacuated," he said on Tuesday in an interview.

"That being said, we will review how everything went; we'll try to identify any gaps and ways we can improve," he added. "Technology is changing and we want the latest technology that's available."

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He said it is appropriate for local governments to tailor their plans according to their unique circumstances, noting Esquimalt, about four kilometres west of Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, had a more robust response.

"A tsunami warning impacts communities differently. So we saw this morning in Esquimalt, for example, volunteers going door-to-door in low-lying areas to make sure people were alerted, but in the Highlands, they are well above any danger level."

The tsunami warning came after a quake with a magnitude of 7.9 struck deep below the ocean floor at about 1:30 a.m. Pacific Time, almost 300 kilometres southeast of Kodiak, Alaska. The warning was officially cancelled at 4:12 a.m., but it took almost half an hour for this news to filter down to residents in some communities.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps was about to issue an evacuation order to residents in areas believed to be at risk of a tsunami when her emergency response team, which had been assembled at a city fire hall more than two hours earlier, was told the danger was over.

Only a few neighbourhoods in the city are believed to be at risk from a tsunami, as well as some houseboat communities in the inner harbour.

Victoria has none of the static, air-raid-type community sirens that roused residents in other coastal communities – but firefighters had mustered and were about to alert people in at-risk areas closest to the water with their mobile sirens.

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Residents who had previously signed up for a telephone alert system, Vic-Alert, did have advance warning of a potential tsunami threat, with text messages starting at 2:45 a.m. Ms. Helps described the year-old emergency alert system as "world class." However, only 6,500 residents had subscribed before Tuesday. By mid-morning on Tuesday, more than 20,000 had joined, and some residents complained that they were kept in the dark about the potential threat.

Tanya Patterson, the city's emergency program co-ordinator, said her team will review what they learned from Tuesday morning's activities – including the fact that they did not know how many people might need to be evacuated.

"It's one of the good lessons learned, we have to go through all the addresses and figure out how many people live there."

In Tofino, Mayor Josie Osborne said locals helped the hundreds of tourists who were in town for storm-watching season.

"Most of the major resorts are exposed to the open ocean; they're right down on the beach," she told The Globe and Mail. "So I talked to a number of resort managers this morning and internally they all have a system for knocking on doors and getting people out."

Catherine Lempke had just returned to the Tofino hostel where she works from a night out when her friend noticed a Google alert on her phone just after 2 a.m.

Ms. Lempke charged out of bed and out of her pyjamas before packing a small bag and then rousing the guests of the hostel, she told The Globe over messages on Twitter.

"I went around the rooms telling people to get dressed, grab their IDs and meet down in the parking lot," she wrote from the town hall, the designated muster point, early on Tuesday morning.

When the warning was cancelled, a cheer went up at the hall, a video posted on Twitter by Ms. Lempke showed.

Masset, a village on Haida Gwaii, tests its tsunami siren every Tuesday at 7 p.m. So when village mayor Andrew Merilees heard it before dawn, he knew it wasn't a drill.

The community evacuation was orderly, he said, adding that village residents have learned from similar events in the past, including a 2012 evacuation order following an earthquake off the northwest coast of B.C.

"Last night was just another warning, that people should be prepared to leave and have all those things in place," he said.

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