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Jack Knox: Quake a wake-up call for complacent Islanders

Oct 30 2012

The good news for Victoria: We're pretty much immune to a tsunami from any earthquake that we can't feel. Our geography protects us from far-away shakers.

The bad news: If we do get swamped, our only tsunami warning will be the earthquake itself, the one that sends us reeling like a drunk on a train.

That's why the capital, unlike Tofino and other communities exposed to the open ocean, doesn't have warning sirens. They're redundant.

What we have, says Rob Johns, the city's emergency co-ordinator, is a simple rule of thumb. "If we have a quake that lasts a minute or more, or makes it difficult to stand, assume a tsunami and move inland."

Victorians need not go far to out-climb a tsunami. In fact, after a big quake it's best to walk or bicycle, not drive, away from low-lying areas whose roads could quickly become congested, Johns says. (This January, the Capital Regional District is expected to release a map showing the most-vulnerable spots.)

The important thing is to act automatically, move higher. "Don't wait for someone to tell you to do that."

Heaven knows many on the B.C. coast were at a loss after Saturday night's Haida Gwaii quake, not quite sure how to react. Government itself was criticized for being either too slow or too quick to respond.

Here in Victoria, we had little to worry about (not that it stopped us). The most we can expect from a too-far-away-to-feel temblor are waves of 20 centimetres in height, Johns says. The real danger would be to swimmers and scuba divers who find themselves in suddenly strong currents. On Saturday night, police were asked to clear the city's beaches as a precaution.

Tofino faced a different situation. In the absence of advice from above, the community took it upon itself to trigger its new here-comes-Armageddon tsunami siren, a sound guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of a Japanese tourist - or an Islander, for that matter.

When Kim Westad heard the wailing, she thought it was noise from the Scottish wedding reception three doors down at Long Beach Lodge - kids messing with the bagpipes, maybe.

But then Westad, a former Times Colonist reporter, opened the door and heard the siren clearly, the howling punctuated every 30 seconds or so by a recorded voice: This is a tsunami warning. Evacuate immediately. Tune to your local radio station.

That inspired a couple of questions: A) Where are we supposed to evacuate to, and B) Tofino has a radio station?

So Westad, her husband and dog all rushed past the now-empty wedding reception - "It was eerie. There were half-filled glasses and plates of food" - piled into the car and drove off into the dark. She madly scanned the radio as he searched in vain for road signs pointing to an evacuation route.

In the end, they just followed a river of tail lights up to the Long Beach golf course, where they found another 100 cars, the drivers wondering what to do next.

One fellow evacuee, on the phone to someone in Vancouver, said that if a tsunami from the Haida Gwaii quake hadn't hit Tofino by 10 p.m., it wouldn't hit at all. With a dearth of information, and hoping the man was right, people began drifting back to their homes and hotels around 10: 30.

Westad thinks Tofino was wise to err on the side of caution and activate the community's siren, a straight-out-of-the-movies alarm that proved way more efficient than sending the volunteer firefighters running around knocking on doors.

Still, she thought the warning system, both in the municipality and its outlying areas, could benefit from a few easy fixes. If you're going to tell people to listen to the radio, tell them how to find the station. Send at least one official to each evacuation point. Erect clearer, better-placed road signs. Put evacuation details in hotel info packages; a well-planned tsunami strategy won't work if the tourists don't know how to follow it.

This was a good test for all of us, a chance to look at what we did right, and what we could do better.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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