PORT HARDY—Hundreds of North Islanders caught up in the voluntary evacuation following Saturday night’s tsunami warning were displaced for only a few hours.
The lessons learned by local emergency personnel in the hours following a magnitude 7.7 earthquake off Haida Gwaii may have a much longer-lasting impact.
“Each of the communities are doing their own individual debriefings, and our North Island regional planning committee will be getting together in the next week to review procedures,” said Cori Neilson, the Regional coordinator for the Provincial Emergency Program. “It was a learning experience.”
There were no injuries or property damage reported on the North Island in the aftermath of the tsunami, which measured little more than 12 centimetres by the time it reached the area. But the event did provide a valuable live exercise for emergency workers and revealed flaws and questions in local plans.
In Port Hardy, there was some question about local emergency shelters. An older brochure indicates Avalon Adventist Junior Academy is the muster station for Storey’s Beach and Fort Rupert residents, but Neilson said the more recent regional plan directs them to the Civic Centre in Port Hardy.
“There’s nothing set up at Avalon,” said Neilson. “There’s no one to staff it or man it, and that’s why we’re using the Civic Centre.”
On the other hand, the current plan indicates Wakas Hall is to be used for residents of Tsulquate Reserve, but they were largely sent to the Civic Centre by Port Hardy Fire Rescue personnel who cruised Tsulquate beginning shortly after 9 p.m.
“There was some miscommunication there,” said Bob Swain, the PEP coordinator in Tsulquate. “We’re going to have a local emergency committee meeting Thursday that will also serve as an information session for the community.
“When something like this happens is when we need a lot of help. We need volunteers.”
Neilson was on the job almost immediately, having felt the quake shortly after 8 p.m. at her Port McNeill home. When the quake subsided, she went online to connect with the stream of information coming in from the Alaska Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre and from B.C. provincial emergency authorities. Later, she joined other local PEP coordinators in a series of conference calls to collect reports and share information.
“I felt like I was well-equipped to do the job I needed to do,” said Neilson, who was facing her first major emergency situation on the North Island since taking over the PEP coordinator position from Chuck Lok last year.
However, rescue crews in each community were not sent into action until nearly an hour after the quake, a delay which caused criticism of provincial authorities in the immediate aftermath.
In Port Hardy, fire rescue crews were mustered shortly after 9 p.m. to inform residents in Storey’s Beach, Beaver Harbour, Tsulquate Reserve and beachfront motels of the evacuation notice.
Some evacuees made their way to Seven Hills Golf and Country Club; many more simply parked alongside Highway 19 to await updates on their radios or smart phones. Others went to Port Hardy Secondary School, where they were redirected to the Civic Centre.
Several hundred, including visitors dislodged from IV’s Quarterdeck Marina and the Glenlyon Inn, went to the Civic Centre, where the North Island Concert Society was hosting folk singer-songwriter James Keelaghan in the first event of its 2012-13 season. The Lions Club opened up its concession to provide free coffee, water and juice boxes, and Grade 7 students from Eagle View Elementary School hosting a fundraising bake sale at the concert offered their remaining treats free to the newcomers. On stage, the band took a short break and returned to play a low-key jam session.
The out-of-town visitors included a youth hockey team from Saanich and the staff of Vancouver Aquarium that had spent the day with the Aqua Van at Quatse River Salmon Stewardship Centre.
“We were having a late dinner at the restaurant (at Glen Lyon),” said Bill Carter of the Saanich Braves peewee hockey club. “The staff came in and said we had to leave because of a tsunami.”
“Not everyone had a chance to pay their bills,” Saanich coach Neil Johnson added. “We’ll go back and pay in the morning.”
The quartet from the Vancouver Aquarium, who were to depart Sunday morning for their next tour stop in the Comox Valley, sat on the Civic Centre floor in pyjamas and played a game of Dino-opoly while waiting for the evacuation to be lifted. They credited the hockey team with helping spread the word about the evacuation from the Glen Lyon.
“That’s how we found out about it,” said Sarah Evans between rolls of the die. “The hockey kids came running out yelling, ‘We’re all gonna die!'”
In Port McNeill, firefighters first contacted live-aboard boaters at the harbour, then rolled down Beach Drive notifying residents of the tsunami warning.
Eventually, at least 30 people were logged in as having checked into the local muster station at North Island Secondary School.
“Our evacuation zone in town is only six metres above sea level,” said Keith Balke, Port McNeill’s PEP coordinator and also a member of the volunteer fire department. “We went through the planned evacuation route, were done and clear in 54 minutes and were at the safe spot checking for people going in.”
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 command centres were hastily assembled in both Port Hardy and Port McNeill to monitor developments and direct resources in the event of a worst-case scenario.
Bob Hawkins, PEP coordinator for the District of Port Hardy, was joined in council chambers by 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. She was then connected with Neilson, the regional PEP coordinator, by Tidbury holding two phones together to create a low-tech conference call between 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.
In Port McNeill, the command centre was set up in the fire hall. Coincidentally, Mayor Gerry Furney, like his counterpart Parnham, was traveling out of the area, and deputy mayor Shirley Ackland was attending the concert in Port Hardy and, later, en route back to Port McNeill. Town administrator Sue Harvey was brought in on a conference call at the fire hall to monitor events.
The evacuation order, which Balcke emphasized was voluntary, was called off in Port McNeill shortly after 11:35 p.m. and residents at the NISS shelter offered the option to return home.
The evacuation order in Port Hardy remained in effect until approximately nearly 1 a.m. Sunday, when high tide had passed and all tsunami activity had ceased.