A truck drives past an evacuation route sign in Jordan River, B.C. (CP)

Real-life tsunami threat in Port Alberni prompts evacuation updates

UBC study says some people didn’t recognize the emergency signal

When tsunami-alert sirens rang out in the dead of night in Port Alberni 14 months ago, most people fled for higher ground but some didn’t recognize the emergency signal, says a new study.

A magnitude 7.9 earthquake off the coast of Alaska Jan. 23, 2018, at 1:31 a.m. prompted a tsunami alert along much of Canada’s West Coast, including Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. Port Alberni was hit by Canada’s largest tsunami in March 1964 after a 9.2 earthquake off the Alaska coast.

READ MORE: Tsunami warning prompts evacuations in Port Alberni

The January 2018 tsunami alert was lifted at 4:30 a.m. but not before thousands of people left their homes in various states of fear and confusion, say researchers from UBC’s school of community and regional planning in a report released Thursday.

Ryan Reynolds, one of the report’s authors and a risk modelling expert, said the report serves as a preparation blueprint for coastal communities that face the ever-present threat of tidal waves.

“This was really an opportunity for us to re-evaluate our own preparedness in terms of coastal hazards,” he said in an interview. “This is really the only test we’ve had recently of a tsunami evacuation to see what impact that has on a community.”

Port Alberni saw more than 90 per cent of households in warning zones evacuate to the safety of higher ground, but there were glitches before the alert was lifted at 4:30 a.m., said Reynolds

Some people didn’t understand why community sirens were blaring and others were looking for confirmation of the alert on social media, but the community’s emergency response system did not immediately inform residents of the potential danger, he said.

“The first thing people do is they try to verify the information,” Reynolds said. “They’re not sure if the siren is a warning or if perhaps the siren’s broke and it’s just going off.”

Elderly people try to verify the alert on television or radio while younger people look to social media, he said. Confusion arose in Port Alberni because as emergency response teams were being activated, the city’s social media sites stayed blank for much of the alert period, said Reynolds.

The research involved interviews with about 450 local residents and numerous city officials, he said.

Reynolds recalled meeting a family that had moved to the community three days before the alert and were roused by neighbours who urged them to flee.

“They didn’t know what the siren meant and they had young kids,” he said. “Suddenly, they’re faced with a sound they don’t know. They look out their door and all they see is neighbours getting in their vehicles. For them this was kind of like the Apocalypse.”

But Reynolds said the research found more than 60 per cent of residents have updated their tsunami evacuation plans since the alert, and community and regional officials have better co-ordinated social media services and response tactics.

“Our community is very tsunami aware,” said Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions. “The tsunami definitely caught people’s attention to make sure they definitely have a plan.”

She said the threat of a tsunami is something that’s never far from the minds of those in the community.

Reynolds said Port Alberni is better prepared today for a tsunami than it was last year.

“If this were to happen tonight at 2 a.m. the events would be much smoother, much quicker and we would have much better communication with people,” he said. “They’re kind of battle-tested.”

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Organizers of the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival have decided to end the event after more than 20 years. / Bob Friesen File Photo
Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival cancelled – for good

Organizers say the event was so popular that too many people were attending to be sustainable

The official search to locate Jordan Naterer was suspended Saturday Oct. 17. Photo courtesy of VPD.
‘I am not leaving without my son,’ says mother of missing Manning Park hiker

Family and friends continue to search for Jordan Naterer, after official efforts suspended

Mark Strahl is speaking in the House of Commons on Oct. 20, 2020, on a Conservative motion to create a special committee to look into the WE charity scandal. The speech will be posted live on his Facebook page. (Facebook image)
VIDEO: Chilliwack-Hope MP Mark Strahl to speak on WE scandal today

Prime Minister has said Conservative motion for ethics committee could trigger election

More and more electric cars are on the road, but one Chevy Bolt owner was shocked to see how much his BC Hydro bill skyrocketed once he started charging the vehicle. (Black Press file photo)
Rosedale man sees significant spike in BC Hydro bill after purchasing electrical vehicle

An increase should be expected, but Brian Chwiendacz experienced a 200-plus per cent hike

Advance polls are now open for the 2020 B.C. election, including the Hope Legion hall. (Emelie Peacock/Hope Standard)
A round-up of Fraser-Nicola election coverage

Undecided voters will find candidate bios, stories on the local race and party platforms

FILE – People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing facility in Burnaby, B.C., on Thursday, August 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
167 new COVID-19 cases, 1 death recorded as B.C. enters 2nd wave

Three new healthcare outbreaks also announced

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 particle isolated from a patient, in a laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID/NIH via AP
At least 49 cases of COVID-19 linked to wedding in Calgary: Alberta Health

McMillan says the city of Calgary has recently seen several outbreaks linked to social gatherings

UBC geoscientists discovered the wreckage of a decades-old crash during an expedition on a mountain near Harrison Lake. (Submitted photo)
Wreckage of possibly decades-old airplane crash discovered on mountain near Harrison Lake

A team of UBC geoscientists discovered the twisted metal embedded in a glacier

Officers with the Lower Mainland Emergency Response Team were at a White Rock home Tuesday (Oct. 20) to assist Vancouver Police Department with execution of a search warrant. (Contributed photo)
ERT, VPD response to White Rock home connected to homicide: police

Search underway in the 15800-block of Prospect Crescent

A bear similar to this black bear is believed responsible for killing a llama in Saanich on Oct. 19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Bear kills llama on Vancouver Island, prompting concerns over livestock

Officers could not track the bear they feel may not fear humans

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Bernard Trest and his son Max, 10, are concerned about B.C.’s plan for students in the classroom. He was one of two fathers who filed a court application in August to prevent schools from reopening if stricter COVID-19 protections weren’t in place. That application was dismissed last week. (Contributed photo)
B.C. dad pledges to appeal quashed call for mandatory masks, distancing in schools

Bernard Trest and Gary Shuster challenged health, education ministries’ return-to-school plan

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
RCMP cleared in fatal shooting of armed Lytton man in distress, police watchdog finds

IIO spoke to seven civillian witnesses and 11 police officers in coming to its decision

A 34-year-old man was treated for a gunshot wound in Williams Lake Monday, Oct 19, 2020. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Williams Lake man treated for gunshot wound after accidental shooting: RCMP

Police are reminding residents to ensure firearms are not loaded when handling them

Most Read