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B.C. to review emergency response management system in wake of Haida Gwaii quake, communication problem with Tofino

Oct 29 2012
Map locates a violent earthquake measuring 7.7 which jolted British Columbia's north-central coast Saturday night, frightening residents and forcing many to temporarily leave their homes for higher ground ahead of a possible tsunami. 

Map locates a violent earthquake measuring 7.7 which jolted British Columbia's north-central coast Saturday night, frightening residents and forcing many to temporarily leave their homes for higher ground ahead of a possible tsunami.

Photograph by: Sean Vokey , Canadian Press

The provincial government will review its emergency response management system after the weekend’s huge earthquake and ensuing tsunami warning that prompted the evacuation of at least six communities on the coast of B.C.

A 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck Saturday just after 8 p.m., shaking buildings and triggering the evacuation of such communities as the Village of Queen Charlotte, Bella Bella, Bella Coola, Kitimat First Nation and Sandspit.

As of about 7 p.m. Sunday, there had been 40 aftershocks, including a 6.4 magnitude tremor south of Haida Gwaii Sunday afternoon.

On Saturday night, Tofino decided to use its tsunami warning system for the first time after communication with the provincial co-ordination centre in Greater Victoria broke down, Tofino Mayor Perry Schmunk said.

Communities provide their own disaster responses, but the province’s emergency response management system oversees a big-picture, unified approach through a co-ordination centre in Greater Victoria and regional centres throughout the province.

Justice Minister Shirley Bond said Sunday that the system worked well, but will be reviewed.

“The emergency management system was engaged immediately and the operation centre was up and running within minutes,” she said. “Any time we go through this kind of experience, it’s a prudent time to review and refine provisions to our plans.”

Schmunk said that after his community lost contact with the provincial system, the district sounded the newly installed warning system rather than waiting. Schmunk said he wants to talk to the province about improving communication.

Officials from the emergency response management system said their efforts were focused on getting information to those communities within the warning zone along B.C.’s north coast and Haida Gwaii.

“Our efforts were very much getting information there,” said Kelli Kryzanowski, manager of strategic initiatives for the provincial management system. “You can understand we wanted to focus our attention in the areas where the threat was.”

Tofino’s warning system is less than a year old and the alert had never been used until Saturday, when screaming sirens urged people to seek higher ground. The loudspeakers also advised people listen to the radio for further updates, but some people said they did not know how to tune in to the correction station.

Emergency management response officials are to review how information was shared during the potential disaster, which shook buildings in some areas but did not cause any injuries.

Tsunami warnings were issued and later cancelled for as far away as Hawaii, and people as far away as Calgary and Edmonton reported feeling the quake.

Chris Duffy, the provincial system’s executive director of emergency co-ordination, applauded staff for having the main response centre in Greater Victoria up and running in minutes.

“I’m satisfied there was really quick communications,” he said. “We’ll analyze [our response] and look for any areas to improve upon. We’ll talk to our clients and partners, including Tofino.”

Esquimalt Coun. Dave Hodgins criticized the provincial system, saying it lacks the resources to achieve its mandate, which is to protect public safety during emergencies.

Hodgins is the province’s former fire commissioner and helped design the emergency management system in 2006-07. He said the system needs the capacity to quickly respond to emergencies and support front-line emergency crews immediately.

“They’re not there, it’s just smoke and mirrors,” Hodgins said. “There is no system,” he said. “They can write about it and talk about it and do different things to promote it, but in reality, they’re just not there.”

The estimated 250 residents of Sandspit, on Haida Gwaii’s Moresby Island, headed for high ground after feeling the ground shake.

Donna Brady lives in the community, near the water. She said she was watching a movie in bed with her husband, Robert, sleeping beside her when their house started to move.

"I yelled, ‘Wake up, wake up! It’s an earthquake,’ ” she recalled Sunday afternoon.

The shaking lasted about a minute and the power went out. By the time the couple found a flashlight and went outside, their son had arrived to drive them to the evacuation site.

Sandspit was evacuated with uncharacteristic big-city-style rush-hour traffic, as vehicles slowly rolled up Alliford Bay Road to the designated evacuation site. Emergency response crews co-ordinated parking and kept residents informed about the tsunami warning.

Fire Chief Bob Ells of the Sandspit volunteer department and a few others had to find a new evacuation site because the fire trucks couldn’t make it across Hands Creek Bridge, which was damaged during a flash flood this month.

He and his crew drove behind the Sandspit Marina to the community’s water reservoir.

“Everything went really well,” Ells said. “I had confidence from all our planning that everyone in the community was high enough to stay safe.”

dspalding@timescolonist.com

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