Ken Ho

Tsunami warning forces evacuations on North Island

PORT HARDY-Hundreds crash concert at Civic Centre after being evacuated from homes, motels during tsunami warning following 7.7 quake

PORT HARDY-Hundreds of local residents and visitors were allowed to return to their homes and motel rooms shortly before 1 a.m. Sunday, nearly four hours after being evacuated in the wake of a tsunami warning that followed a 7.7-magnitude earthquake off Haida Gwaii Saturday night.

“The tsunami warning has been downgraded to an advisory, and we’re calling off the evacuation,” local Provincial Emergency Program coordinator Bob Hawkins said at 12:55 a.m. Sunday. “There is still a chance of aftershocks creating additional tsunami hazards, and the evacuation could be reinstated.

“We’ll continue monitoring the situation.”

The initial quake occurred shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday, and was followed by a series of aftershocks ranging from 4.8 to 5.5 in magnitude.

After the Alaska Tsunami Center issued a tsunami warning for areas of the Alaska and B.C. coasts, including North Vancouver Island, local Provincial Emergency Program officials called for an evacuation of low-lying areas, including parts of Storey’s Beach, the Tsulquate Reserve and motels along Hardy Bay Road.

Those without other options were directed to the Civic Centre, which serves as the emergency centre for the District of Port Hardy. By coincidence, the North Island Concert Society was holding its season-opening event with folk singer James Keelaghan at the Civic Centre, and he and his trio continued playing even as the evacuees began arriving between 9 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday.

Most of the several hundred people who filled the Civic Centre were members of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nations from Tsulquate Reserve. But the crowd included a number of visitors, including a hockey team from Victoria scheduled to play Sunday in Port Hardy and four members of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Aqua Van tour, which had set up earlier in the day for demonstrations at the Quatse Salmon Stewardship Centre.

Both the hockey players and the Aqua Van staff had been staying at Glen Lyon Inn on the waterfront along Hardy Bay Road when the evacuation order came.

“That’s how we found out about it,” said Sarah Evans of Vancouver Aquarium. “The hockey kids came running out yelling, ‘We’re all gonna die!'”

Reports coming in throughout the evening Saturday indicated no such loss of life and little or no property damage throughout the quake region. A tsunami of 44 centimetres was recorded at Langara Island in the Queen Charlottes, and had diminished to just 12 cm by the time it reached Tofino on Vancouver Island’s west coast.

But the staff at the hastily assembled emergency command centre at the District of Port Hardy office was taking no chances. In addition to Hawkins, the group included acting mayor John Tidbury, Gloria Le Gal of the District staff and various members of Port Hardy Fire Rescue, Port Hardy’s RCMP detachment and District employees.

Mayor Bev Parnham, who was traveling, was brought in on a call over speaker phone from Regina. Corianne Neilson, the Regional District of Mount Waddington PEP coordinator based in Port McNeill, was brought in on another line, and at one point Tidbury held the two phones together to create an impromptu conference call involving the two.

“Better to be safe than sorry,” Parnham said after being informed the initial tsunami reports indicated a fast-moving, but low wave from the quake.

The evacuation order was finally lifted after high tide had passed, at approximately 12:45 a.m. Sunday.

Prior to that, evacuees at the Civic Centre were provided regular updates by nurse practitioner Sara Mitchell-Banks, while Keelaghan’s trio continued to play a softer, acoustic set of songs and improvisation along with NICS president Brian Hicks, who sat in on guitar and vocals. Elder Mabel James also took the microphone at one point to gather youngsters in a circle around the stage and sing both English and Aboriginal language children’s songs.

Staff from the Port Hardy Lions Club opened its concession at the Civic Centre and provided coffee, water and juice at no charge to the displaced crowd. The Grade 7 class of Eagle View Elementary School, which had provided a fund-raising bake sale during the concert, offered their unsold snacks at no charge to the evacuees.