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Critics lash post-quake response

Oct 30 2012
A violent earthquake measuring 7.7 jolted British Columbia's north-central coast Saturday night, frightening residents and forcing many to temporarily leave their homes. 

A violent earthquake measuring 7.7 jolted British Columbia's north-central coast Saturday night, frightening residents and forcing many to temporarily leave their homes.

Photograph by: Sean Vokey, The Canadian Press , Postmedia News

The efficiency of B.C.'s emergency-management program is drawing harsh criticism after what many say was a delayed reaction to the weekend's tsunami threat.

A 7.7-magnitude quake struck Saturday in the province's coastal waters near Haida Gwaii at 8: 04 p.m. Officials from several communities, including those nearby, say they first heard from Emergency Management B.C. nearly an hour later.

Residents also tried getting information from the agency through a variety of sources, but no official word came until about 9 p.m., long after tsunami warnings were issued in the U.S. and reports had been cobbled together by news media.

"We'll look for ways to improve our process," said Chris Duffy, EMBC executive director of emergency co-ordination.

Duffy told reporters Monday that though he is happy with his staff's response time, there might be ways to get information out faster to the public.

The West Coast Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre issued a tsunami warning at 8: 07 p.m. Their staff were on a conference call with EMBC staff immediately after the quake, the centre confirmed Monday.

EMBC staff say they had an operations centre up and running within minutes and were sending out messages to regional and local emergency responders as soon as 11 minutes after the quake, Duffy said.

But the response to communities vulnerable to a tsunami was too slow, critics say.

Tofino sounded sirens from its newly installed tsunami warning system, sending residents and tourists for high ground.

Mayor Perry Schmunk said EMBC took an hour to get information to his emergency responders, which is far too slow.

Tofino and other communities also receive notices directly from the tsunami warning centre in Alaska, which should be their first indication that something might need to be done, Duffy said.

"They're receiving the information the same time we are," he said. "That's when the emergency-response plans for a tsunami comes off the shelf."

Communities closer to the earthquake were given higher priority, but emergency responders in the Village of Masset on Haida Gwaii did not hear from the province's emergency response management system until nearly an hour after the quake.

"They asked us to initiate our emergency plan," Masset Mayor Andrew Merilees said.

By that time, however, the 1,000 or so residents of the fishing village had already started making their way to the evacuation site, about 10 kilometres south of the community.

Police and firefighters were the last to leave, following the long string of tail lights up a hill about 70 metres above sea level.

Merilees said the government's response needs improvements, but his community and others in the region need to take responsibility for their own responses.

"Ideally, it would be great if the province is in touch in minutes. But it takes some time, so 45 minutes is not a bad turnaround," Merilees said.

"The important time, in my opinion, is in the months and years before an event and in that sense, the province has done an adequate job in getting [communities] prepared."

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 to quickly respond to emergencies and support frontline emergency crews immediately.

"They're not there, it's just smoke and mirrors.

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."

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

"Any time we go through this kind of experience, it's a prudent time to review and refine provisions to our plans," she said.

Saturday's event was the third-strongest earthquake ever recorded in Canada.

Another quake off Haida Gwaii (then the Queen Charlotte Islands) on Aug. 22, 1949, had a magnitude of 8.1, according to the Natural Resources Canada website.

On Jan. 26, 1700, a massive quake in the Cascadia subduction zone is believed to have had a magnitude of about 9.0. That one involved the Juan de Fuca Plate underlying the Pacific Ocean, from mid-Vancouver Island south along the coast as far as California. The length of the fault rupture was about 1,000 kilometres.

On March 28, 1964, a 9.2-magnitude quake in Prince William Sound off Alaska triggered the tsunami that caused extensive property damage in Port Alberni.

dspalding@timescolonist.com

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