For Port Alberni residents, the most noticeable reminder of the 1964 disaster takes place at 1 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month. The message blares from speakers poised high above the ground at a series of strategic locations:
“This is a test… only a test… of the tsunami warning system.”
In theory, the system is meant to broadcast a series of levels of alert, from Tsunami Advisory to evacuation order, as information comes in to the Emergency Operations Centre at Fourth Avenue and Angus Street.
But on the evening of June 14, 2005, when a Magnitude 7.4 earthquake struck off the coast of California, less than an hour away as the tsunami travels, fire chief Larry McGifford was forced to make a snap decision.
At 9:01 p.m., the tsunami warning system blared out its pre-programmed message: “Tsunami warning! Tsunami warning! Evacuate to higher ground!”
The alert caused a brief panic, especially in the low-lying areas of the city as people fled their homes and followed evacuation routes to higher ground. CJAV news man Rob Diotte left a school board meeting in progress and took over manual control of the radio station. With an update from the EOC, he broadcast the stand-down order at 9:20 and the warning system broadcast the All Clear.
It was a false alarm. But the system worked as intended.
“Sometimes you have to observe and sometimes you have to react. One hour is not a whole lot of time,” McGifford said.