“Tsunami warning. Tsunami warning. Evacuate to higher ground.”
The unsettling sirens that went off at 3 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23 were no drill, and Port Alberni residents took heed. Tsunamis are serious business in Port Alberni, which was hit with a large wave in the middle of the night in March 1964 that moved cars and houses, and flooded much of the city’s industrial waterfront.
Tuesday’s sirens were triggered following at 7.9 magnitude earthquake that occurred off the coast of Kodiak, Alaska, approximately 279 kilometres offshore, at around 1:30 a.m. The National Tsunami Warning Center and Emergency Info BC issued alerts on social media, television stations and web browsers warning of an imminent tsunami along coastal British Columbia, from Alaska in the north to Washington State in the south. The alerts warned people in low-lying areas to evacuate to higher ground.
It took the City of Port Alberni one hour after word first came out about the earthquake and tsunami warning to trigger the sirens.
“We’re actually discussing the amount of time between our first notifications of a possible tsunami and the first trigger of the warning sirens,” Port Alberni Mayor Mike Ruttan said after the all clear had been issued. “There was almost an hour. We didn’t have actual confirmation that a wave was going to hit here with some force.”
Not wanting to panic residents unnecessarily, they waited, he said. “We did eventually trigger (the siren) just after 3 a.m.”
Emergency personnel from the Port Alberni Fire Department and RCMP Detachment were dispatched to the industrial areas and critical junctures in the city to alert residents to evacuate, and bar them from going down into the tsunami inundation zone. Everyone from Fourth Avenue down to the shoreline was evacuated. The mills along the waterfront sounded their alarms as well.
In the case of a tsunami or earthquake warning, Echo Centre is always the first place for an emergency operations centre to be set up, Ruttan said. Then the AV Multiplex. Mustering stations are also located at Walmart, Canadian Tire and the Visitor Information Centre. Several businesses opened early to give people sanctuary.
“I went up the Hump (Alberni Summit on Highway 4) with hundreds of others,” Susan Roth said. “Lots of people up there. Probably the safest place to be. It’s my family’s meeting place for things like this.”
“I woke up to my oldest son screaming and heard the sirens and warning system,” Leah Tinkess said. “We grabbed our pets and got in the car within two minutes and ended up at the brake check up on the hump with tons of others. Everyone was driving safely. What a scare! And a lesson learned….we need to build an emergency kit.”
“Woke up to my mom phoning at 2:30 am telling me to pack and leave and I didn’t believe her,” Rene Weening wrote. “I opened my front door and said no one else was leaving. Called the fire department at 3 am and they confirmed to leave…five minutes later the sirens were going off.”
Many people have said they couldn’t hear what the announcement said following the sirens. Those who live close to the sirens said it was easier to hear once you were some distance away.
Penny Cote, representing the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, said the region didn’t end up with a task number for the emergency, so the emergency operations centre wasn’t formally established. “I asked if Sproat Lake Fire Dept. had been notified and they had, so they were ready to go,” she said. “Our concern was travellers coming into the area from the west coast.”
Cote said the evacuation was “very well-orchestrated by all our emergency team. They did a great job, people were evacuating as I was coming in.” Cote lives at Sproat Lake, and said traffic was steady by the time she reached Tseshaht Market, then River Road.
“From my perspective, I was quite pleased with the way citizens responded,” Ruttan said. “Lots of people hopped in their cars or walked up to higher ground.”
Ruttan said the community was well trained following Exercise Coastal Response, which the city hosted in 2016. “I think Exercise Coastal Response really helped raise people’s awareness.”