District emergency plan to undergo review

Port Hardy's emergency planning committee held its regular monthly meeting for October.

PORT HARDY—Warning sirens, tsunami evacuation route signage and new evacuation centre coordinators were among the top recommendations last week as Port Hardy’s emergency planning committee held its regular monthly meeting for October.

But before any of those occur, the District’s emergency plan will undergo a thorough review.

Last Tuesday’s meeting was held three days after the 7.7-magnitude earthquake off Haida Gwaii and the resulting tsunami advisory that scrambled North Island emergency services providers to evacuate low-lying areas in and around Port Hardy and Port McNeill.

“We’re looking at the emergency plan, and we’re going to be updating it,” said Bob Hawkins the District of Port Hardy coordinator for the Provincial Emergency Program.

Coming as it did on the heels of a major emergency event, last week’s meeting became essentially a de-briefing of procedures followed the night of the earthquake and a recognition of shortcomings and communication failures during the evening.

Attendees included District staff and elected officials, First Nations, Port Hardy Fire Rescue, RCMP, Coast Guard and Transport Canada representatives as well as Mount Waddington Regional PEP coordinator Cori Neilson of Port McNeill.

They were unanimous in praise of the region’s first responders for their quick call-out and efforts in evacuating residents from potential danger areas. But there was criticism at the slow response of provincial emergency officials in getting the word out, and Neilson admitted she got more up-to-date and useful information from U.S. emergency notification sites.

There were also communication shortcomings locally, primarily having to do with evacuation centres and jurisdictions.

On Tsulquate Reserve, fire rescue trucks cruised the streets instructing residents to move up to the Civic Centre. But Bob Swain, the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw emergency planning committee chair, noted the band has had an emergency plan — and its own evacuation centre at Wakas Hall — since the flood of September 2010 threatened and exposed the risk to the Tsulquate bridge connecting the reserve to Port Hardy.

“I’m busy evacuating people to my area, and the fire department comes in and tells my people to evacuate to the Civic Centre,” Swain said.

“That was our error,” admitted John Tidbury, who served as acting mayor at the command centre and who is also a member of Port Hardy Fire Rescue.

At Storey’s Beach, there was some confusion over an evacuation destination. The District’s current plan designates Avalon Adventist Academy on Byng Road as the centre for Storey’s Beach and Fort Rupert, but it did not have a designated coordinator the night of the earthquake.

Avalon principal Clifford Wood did arrive at the school, which was opened and did host some evacuees. But others drove out of the area, some going as far as Seven Hills Golf and Country Club and some simply parking alongside the highway to check for info on their smart phones or car radios.

“It was pretty much utter chaos on the beach,” said deputy fire chief Sean Mercer, whose own wife and young children were part of the evacuation. The situation was exacerbated by an erroneous report on the radio indicating the evacuation notice had been lifted, resulting in a stream of traffic back into Storey’s Beach even as fire rescue crews were overseeing departures, Mercer said.

“One of the things I noticed was our brochure is not all correct,” said Tidbury, who reiterated both Hawkins and the District would be reviewing their emergency plan.

Hawkins and Tidbury said the District would recruit and train a coordinator for Avalon. Wood, who did not attend the meeting, spoke to the Gazette later in the week and said the school would be happy to serve the community as an evacuation centre, but requested supplies like cots, food, water and other supplies.

Suggested amendments to the District’s Emergency Plan that received the most positive response were those for signage indicating tsunami evacuation routes and those for warning sirens located in low-lying areas.

Al Dodd, who works for Transport Canada but who spoke as a concerned citizen, noted both Port McNeill and Port Alice have tsunami evacuation route signs and that Port Hardy, which is bracketed by potential at-risk bridges over the Quatse and Tsulquate rivers, is overdue for such signage. His request received a positive response from both Hawkins and Mayor Bev Parnham.

Tsunami warning sirens, like the one in place in Tofino, also received a positive response, though Tidbury noted the expense to place sirens in Hardy Bay and the Storey’s Beach/Fort Rupert areas could reach $120,000.

That raised a call for fund-raising from some meeting attendees. Coun. Rick Marcotte noted in the event of a truly large-scale, subduction zone quake near Vancouver Island, a large tsunami could travel at 700 km per hour. And that Haida Gwaii, in the case of last week’s quake, was only 350 miles away.

“Everyone in the fire department did a great job, and I think lives would have been saved (in the event of a large tsunami),” Marcotte said. “But if you this thing hits that quickly, those guys are right in the middle of it.”

Earlier, attendees had discussed ways to share updated information with the public. Those included traditional media sources like the radio and the Gazette’s online presence, but noted most residents were turning to social media sites like Facebook to share info.

“All this talk about social media is great,” said Staff Sgt. Gord Brownridge of Port Hardy RCMP. “But people hear a siren, and they’re gone.”