— Catherine Lempke (@Cat_Lempke) January 23, 2018
Tofino and Ucluelet residents breathed a collective sigh of relief around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday morning as the Tsunami Warning that had evacuated them from their homes and into their community’s emergency muster stations was cancelled.
“The warning has been downscaled to an advisory. So, that’s good news” Ucluelet’s Manager of Environmental and Emergency Services Karla Robison said into her megaphone at the Ucluelet Secondary School around 4:30 a.m. “We’re safe to go home.”
The school’s gym was packed as hundreds of community members had gathered after receiving alerts to evacuate after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit off Alaska around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. Local police and members of the Ucluelet Volunteer Fire Brigade were knocking on residents homes around 3 a.m. advising them to head to the gym.
After relaying the good news that the warning had been cancelled, Robison explained an advisory means to stay away from docks, shorelines and harbours.
“A warning means you need to evacuate, an advisory means you don’t go surfing, you don’t go hang out on the docks, you don’t go boating, you don’t go fishing,” she said. “An advisory is just to stay away from the ocean because there could be some stronger currents and there could be some smaller-type surges, but no large waves.”
An automated message from Tofino’s One Call emergency notification system went out at 4:42 a.m. advising Tofitians the Tsunami Warning had been cancelled.
Ucluelet local Pieter Timmermans said he and his wife Barbara Schramm were in bed when they heard the tsunami siren.
“We thought, ‘Okay, something’s going on,’” he said. “We were waiting for a text to come through on the cell phone, but nothing came through so I called the local RCMP and they said, ‘There’s a tsunami alert’ and we boogied out.”
Schramm added that she was surprised a tsunami advisory wasn’t immediately posted on the district of Ucluelet’s website.
“Still in my bed, I looked for that and there was no notice,” she said.
Timmermans said he was in the school’s gym by the time he received an alert on his cell-phone and added he was impressed with how many people heeded the warning and made their way to the gym.
“It was really interesting to see everybody get up and at ‘em and obey the warnings,” he said. “It was a good learning exercise. Even though the texts didn’t go out in time, I’m sure next time this will help iron out some of the wrinkles.”
“It was a really good drill,” said Ukee local Julie Chernis. “Neighbours came to the door and pounded on our door and then, 10 minutes later, the fire department came…It was neighbour-to-neighbour. They were banging on the door. They knew we were there and they didn’t let up until we got up and said ‘Hey, we’re on the go.’”
Julie’s husband Ed Chernis suggested he’d like to see a quicker alert from the district office next time.
“What gets me is that, if the earthquake was at 1:30 a.m., why did the emergency notification from the district get to me at 3:49 a.m.?” he asked. “I had to rely on a neighbour to come pounding on our door to let us know.”
Ucluelet Mayor Dianne St. Jacques told the Westerly News inside the gym that the community responded well to the event and that she and her team will discuss the evacuation event and ways to improve in the future.
“It was a very good dress rehearsal. As always, there are things to learn when these things happen so we’ll definitely have a debrief with our gang here, but everybody was very professional and very calm and did what needed to be done. I think we’re on a good path with emergency preparedness,” she said.
“The community did awesome…The firemen did a great job getting to all the low lying areas, evacuating everyone and getting them up here to this reception area. People were very patient and very calm. So I’m very impressed and, luckily, it turned out to be downgraded to just an advisory so we’re very grateful for that.”