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Tsunami warning: How well did we respond, communities ask

Tofino thinks its response to Tuesday’s early-morning tsunami warning was textbook perfect while in Sooke, misinformation or a lack of information spread panic.
Tsunami evacuation route road signs are posted along the Pacific Rim Highway in between Tofino and Ucluelet.

Tofino thinks its response to Tuesday’s early-morning tsunami warning was textbook perfect while in Sooke, misinformation or a lack of information spread panic.

Up and down Vancouver Island, community leaders and emergency co-ordinators are coming to grips with their response to the tsunami warning. Some felt they passed the test, others saw a need for improvement.

Residents in Tofino, Port Alberni and Tahsis were woken by warning sirens shortly after the quake with a magnitude of 7.9 struck off Alaska at 1:31 a.m. Pacific time. The quake was centred 278 kilometres southeast of Kodiak, Alaska, in the Gulf of Alaska at a depth of about 10 kilometres.

The U.S. National Tsunami Warning centre issued a tsunami warning for the outer coast of B.C. and Alaska at 1:38 a.m., which mobilized staff at Emergency Management B.C. The provincial agency co-ordinates the response to emergencies and natural disasters.

Emergency Management B.C.’s provincial duty manager activated the emergency notification system to alert first responders, community leaders and First Nation communities. A social media team posted information on Twitter under the handle @EmergencyInfoBC.

Each municipality and community is responsible for its own emergency response plan, said Chris Duffy, executive director of operations at Emergency Management B.C.

“What works in Sooke doesn’t necessarily work in Victoria or Nanaimo,” Duffy said. The response varies from warning sirens, to door-to-door evacuations, to notification systems sent to cellphones or landlines.

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne said she received the tsunami warning at 2 a.m. and quickly activated the district’s emergency operations centre at the fire hall. The Tofino Community Hall was opened as an evacuation reception centre.

The tsunami warning sirens were sounded at 2:10 a.m., which could be heard along low-lying areas of Tofino. The sound woke people and signalled that it wasn’t a drill. Social-media alerts advised people to get to higher ground.

“I didn’t see any signs of panic,” Osborne said.

Wendy Hainstock, general manager of Hostel International Tofino, was at her other job at the Tofino Legion when her staff alerted her to the tsunami warning just after 2 a.m. She drove back to the hostel, grabbed a blow horn and the guest ledger, and began systematically waking up guests. Some seemed very scared and others were nonchalant, including a man who opened his door naked.

She grabbed the hostel’s evacuation backpack, which has food and water for 10 people for three days, and staff and guests car-pooled to the community hall.

Hundreds of people packed into the Tofino muster centre, nervously awaiting any news. The District of Tofino’s Twitter feed advised that tsunami activity was forecast to start at 3:40 a.m., and then at 4:40 a.m.

Hainstock said some children cried while others played, oblivious to the potential danger. People brought their dogs, cats, even a turtle.

One woman read aloud from a book of poetry and Hainstock sang Disney songs to kids.

Many tourists appeared scared, obviously not used to the regular tsunami drills carried out by locals.

“We practise drills regularly,” Hainstock said. “The tsunami is always looming. The idea of it happening is always there.”

At 4:35 a.m., news came that the tsunami warning had been lifted, which prompted cheers in the crowd.

“I think that everything went really well. I was impressed with the communication here and how well people responded,” Osborne said, adding there’s nothing that makes a mayor more proud than seeing how a community comes together in the face of a potential emergency.

Doreen Barrat, an Otter Point resident on West Coast Road between Sooke and Jordan River, is upset that there were no warning sirens in the area. She heard about the tsunami warning after receiving a call from relatives in Port McNeill at 3:20 a.m.

“It was almost eerie how silent it was out there, with all the panic going on with phone calls and stuff,” she said.

Barrat lives about 300 feet above sea level. She called friends who live closer to the ocean and told them to pack up and take refuge in her home. By the time neighbours were packing up supplies and pets, the tsunami warning had been lifted.

“We didn’t know what was happening, which is what I’m really upset about,” said Barrat. “Victoria was talking about the wonderful [notification] system in the region. It was not good. There’s no communication out here. There’s no cell service where I live, so I can’t get a [text] alert.”

There’s lots of talk about drills and preparedness, but in the face of a potential threat, Barrat said, someone dropped the ball.

Sooke Fire Chief Kenn Mount said emergency management officials were monitoring tsunami warning charts to assess the risk of an inundation and made the decision not to evacuate.

“We had time to make sure we didn’t pull the trigger too quick and cause mass panic,” he said.

Firefighters were dispatched to low-lying areas such as Whiffin Spit and Kaltasin Road. Firefighters did not knock on doors, but spoke with worried residents who came out of their homes to ask what was going on.

“The most difficult thing was managing the premature panickers who got wrong information from non-credible social media channels,” Mount said.

Wrong information leads to poor decisions, such as pulling the fire alarm in a multi-unit building. The person who did that obviously wanted a quick way to alert their neighbours, but “it’s not the best thing to do because it put extra stress on the fire department that’s trying to manage a unique event,” Mount said.

A major tsunami did not form because of the type of earthquake that occurred.

Earth sciences professor Brent Ward at Simon Fraser University said the quake was a strike-slip earthquake, where tectonic plates slip sideways past each other.

“To get a tsunami, you have to have vertical movement of the sea floor and that more often occurs in what we call a thrust fault, usually in a subduction zone, where one of the plates is moving over top of the other.”

Ward said when a plate moves up very quickly, that displaces the water above it, setting off a tsunami.

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— With The Canadian Press