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In Haida Gwaii, they felt the Earth move

Oct 30 2012

Donna Brady was watching a movie in bed Saturday with her husband, Robert, sleeping beside her when the largest earthquake they ever felt started to shake their Sandspit home.

At first, she noticed her husband’s leg shaking and thought little of it. Then she saw the bed vibrating and heard what most people have described as sounding and feeling like a freight train.

The couple live near the water in the tiny community on Haida Gwaii’s Moresby Island, just kilometres away from where the 7.7-magnitude earthquake hit just after    8 p.m.

As in most communities on Haida Gwaii, residents and emergency responders did not wait for the provincial emergency management team to tell them what to do next.

Fearing the threat of an ensuing tsunami, everyone headed for higher ground as soon as their homes stopped moving. 

“We felt the earthquakes lots of times before, but this time the house was actually moving,” Brady said Sunday.

In the nearby Village of Queen Charlotte, on Graham Island at Skidegate Inlet, Mayor Carol Kulesha grabbed her dog and took shelter under a kitchen table.

She has lived in the community of about 1,000 people for 42 years and she has felt a lot of tremors in that time, but nothing that shook the ground quite like this one.

The quake was the largest to hit Canadian shores since an 8.1-magnitude quake struck in the same area in 1949, but experts said the impact was minimized because the epicentre was far away from heavily populated areas and the quake did not create a tsunami.

Fearing the tsunami that never came, several communities in the region were evacuated, including Queen Charlotte, Sandspit, Bella Bella, Bella Coola and Kitimat First Nation.

Kulesha waited for the shaking to stop before leaving her house.

“I felt like I was on a freight train,” she said. “The noise was loud and the building was shaking as if it were going over railroad tracks.”

Firefighters drove the streets of Queen Charlotte Village, broadcasting their tsunami alert over loudspeakers mounted on their trucks.

The 250 residents of Sandspit also headed for the hills. Vehicles slowly rolled up Alliford Bay Road to a designated evacuation site.

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

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

“Everything went really well,” he said.

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

In Old Massett on Haida Gwaii, no one hung around waiting for a tsunami warning from the provincial government.

“We would have been swimming before anyone told us what to do,” Chief Coun. Ken Rea said.

About 2,000 people from the communities of Old Massett, Masset and Tow Hill started headed for the evacuation hill — 12 kilometres out of Old Masset  — as soon as the earthquake hit, Rea said.

Volunteer firefighters, using school buses for transport, immediately started combing Old Massett streets and helping those who do not have vehicles, Rea said.

“There was only one stubborn old man who wouldn’t leave,” he said.

Haida Gwaii communities have experience with earthquakes, but this was different and procedures are now being reviewed to see what could be done more efficiently.

Masset Mayor Andrew Merilees stood at the top of the hill, looking back at his community while making note of the lack of cellular- phone reception.

“I think that’s something we’ll take a look at,” he said. “Some communities here don’t have cell reception at all.”

Rea said in the future, his community might block off northbound traffic during an emergency, allowing two lanes of vehicles to drive out of town.

The communities will seek federal and provincial help to build basic facilities on top of the escape hill. Storage for tents, fresh water, communications equipment and garbage containers is needed, Rea said.

“It’s my fourth time up that hill,” Rea said. “But the unnerving thing this time was the size of the earthquake. There were a lot of scared people up that hill.”

dspalding@timescolonist.com

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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