While some North Coast residents slept soundly, others were alerted to the tsunami warning issued for coastal B.C. at 2:06 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
Following a 7.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Kodiak, Alaska, sirens and drills organized people in Lax Kw’alaams, Metlakatla, residents evacuated to high ground, the District of Port Edward sounded its tsunami horn and the City of Prince Rupert issued a press release on its website after 4 a.m. when the warning was lifted.
The Prince Rupert Port Authority security personnel evacuated people from Ridley Island and DP World’s Fairview Terminal as a precautionary measure, returning to business as usual a couple hours later.
For the first time, Lax Kw’alaams used its community tsunami siren, which was installed in June 2017. Barb Henry managed the emergency centre where people were evacuated.
“People were calm because the community had practiced tsunami exercises a couple of times,” Henry said.
Lax Kw’alaams fire chief James Henry initiated the evacuation order at 2 a.m. for more than 800 people who live in the First Nations community. In less than an hour, the lower area of the community was fully evacuated.
“Our community members pretty much knew what to do already, they just needed someone to tell them,” he said.
There were approximately 25 volunteers with vehicles who drove people to higher ground. The emergency siren didn’t work, so the fire truck and ambulance drove around town to notify people what was going on.
In Metlakatla, residents were also evacuated.
“Emergency contacts in the community of Metlakatla and in Prince Rupert were notified of the tsunami warning and worked to ensure all residents were evacuated to the high point in the community,” said Shaun Thomas, the communications manager for Metlakatla First Nation.
“Residents remained at the evacuation point until those contacts were informed that the tsunami warning had been lifted. All resources available were used to ensure that everyone, including those with mobility challenges, were out of harm’s way.”
In Port Edward, an alarm went off at the fire hall, and residents from the district stirred from their slumber and moved to higher ground.
Laurie Proteau and her husband, who live on a sailboat at the Porpoise Harbour in Port Edward, woke at 3 a.m. to the loud siren.
“We got off the boat and started talking to a few other people who also live on their boats. We had no idea what the siren was. After checking our phones we realized there was a tsunami warning and decided to get off of the floating dock and move to higher ground. We weren’t sure where in town we were going to go but we wanted to get away from the water,” Proteau said.
Dontanya Wolfe, who lives near the school in Port Edward on Pacific Avenue, woke at 3:20 a.m. to a message from a friend.
“I stood outside my front door at 4 a.m. and could hear an alarm but it was very quiet, as if far off in the distance … If a serious tsunami was to hit us, I would have been still asleep in my bed. The tsunami alarm failed my household,” Wolfe said.
In response, chief administrative officer for Port Edward, Bob Payette, said “the horn is primarily for anybody closer to the water. We only have the one horn so we position it to get maximum effect closer to the water.”
As to why no one knew what the siren was for, Payette said the district informs its residents about the tsunami alarm in the monthly newsletter and they also hold drills at the fire hall each month.
“But that’s something we’ll have to get out there again. After last night they should know for sure what it’s all about,” he said.
In Prince Rupert, there was a mixed response from residents who woke up to the news that they had slept through a tsunami warning.
“We need a better warning system, I slept through it all,” wrote Debbie MacDonald to the Northern View Facebook page.
“Same. I had lots of missed phone calls. My phone was on vibrate. I live near [downtown] and I slept through all of it. I was told our city siren was taken away years ago. Maybe it’s time to have it back for a better warning for those who are heavy sleepers,” wrote Leilani Kaye Woods.
The City of Prince Rupert doesn’t have a tsunami siren. Due to the elevation of the community, the level of risk is limited to low-lying areas, said the communications manager from the city, Veronika Stewart, in an email.
“Fire and RCMP staff were deployed and ready to go in the areas where we might need to do door knocking but then once we were keeping track of the wave status and how things were going in other areas of coastal B.C., it was determined that we wouldn’t need to evacuate those areas and there was no flood risk,” Stewart said.
The city posted updates on Twitter and Facebook, but Stewart said if any kind of emergency response was required, the community would have been notified on a broader scale.
Some residents who did learn of the warning took to high ground at the Prince Rupert Regional Hospital, but the city said this prevented clear access for emergency traffic and requested residents use the Emergency Reception Centre at the civic centre instead.
When the warning was issued, the city activated its Emergency Reception Centre at the Jim Ciccone Civic Centre to receive evacuees. The Prince Rupert fire hall was initiated as the Emergency Operations Centre, where emergency staff gathered to respond to the event.
“Staff were in direct contact with Emergency Management BC who provided updates regarding the warning status. Based on available data, it was not necessary to call a local state of emergency,” said Dave McKenzie, Prince Rupert Fire Chief, in the city press release.
In the hours after the tsunami warning was canceled, Stewart said the City of Prince Rupert is “conducting a review this week with staff to see if there’s anything we can do to improve, and that includes potentially looking at the possibility of text notifications or landline calling or some of the things other communities have in place.”
An improved notification system is coming.
Currently, the provincial emergency response system notifies municipal governments, emergency response personnel and broadcast news outlets — not print — of a major hazard. The Parliamentary Secretary for Emergency Response Jennifer Rice, said that at the moment it isn’t possible to alert everyone by text.
However, the federal government has asked cell phone providers to allow for a national alerting system called Alert Ready. Provinces will be able to tap into that system by April 2018.
Rice was on the Prince Rupert city council when the city debated on whether or not they should install a tsunami siren.
“Every time an event like this happened there was a debate on whether or not we should have one,” Rice said.
She said she thinks that this event sent a message that we’ll all need to up our emergency preparedness game challenging people to take this on as a new years resolution.
“It’s a shared responsibility. We all have a roll to play, all levels of government, First Nations and individuals,” Rice said.
*In the print publication of this story the Northern View had written that Jennifer Rice had said that there were sirens in the city when she was on Prince Rupert city council. However, she later clarified that during her time on Prince Rupert city council, the debate about whether or not to have a siren came up after the tsunami warning. We apologize for the error.