Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins experienced both sides of the tsunami alert that woke many Vancouver Island residents in the wee hours of this morning.
As a leader, and as an evacuee.
As the head of the municipality she was concerned that the Township’s emergency response systems worked the way they were supposed to. But as a resident of a float home in West Bay, which could be very vulnerable in the event of a tsunami, she joined her husband and their neighbours in packing a bag and moving to higher ground, in this case the Esquimalt Recreation Centre.
“I felt it went quite smoothly,” she said. “Everyone seemed calm, they seemed prepared. As we went around, staff had given me the sense we had about an hour to be out. We were waking people from dead sleep telling them ‘you need to get out,’ liveaboards as well. But there was no panic, it was an orderly evacuation.”
Esquimalt’s emergency preparedness people were at the centre ready to receive people, many of whom were alerted by members of the Esquimalt Fire Department who were patrolling coastline neighbourhoods. Despite their efforts, some people didn’t seem to get the alert.
According to Desjardins, many residents of Esquimalt count on the Department of National Defence sirens at CFB Esquimalt, but they didn’t go off.
“So that’s something that for our community we have to understand and follow up because there seems to be a couple of community expectations that that is a signal for us,” she said.
Capt. Jenn Jackson, base public affairs officer with CFB Esquimalt, said they didn’t sound the alarm because the tsunami threat wasn’t imminent and they didn’t want to cause a panic.
“In consultation with Emergency Management B.C. and other sources such as CUS Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it was determined that the threat to Victoria was not imminent and that continued monitoring of the effects further north would give us ample time to sound the alarms if needed,” she said, adding if the threat was imminent to Victoria, then the sirens would have been sounded.
They did, however, sound the alarm in Port Alberni about one hour after word first came out about the earthquake
“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. When it did sound, it was with mixed results. Resident Steve Myers it wasn’t loud enough for some residents to be woken up.
“I didn’t hear it,” he said. “I woke up to about 50 texts on my phone at about 6 a.m. this morning.”
Despite their ineffectiveness in his case, Myers said he’s surprised he didn’t hear them and he thinks they are an important community asset, not just for Alberni, but for Greater Victoria and other coastal cities as well.
“Considering they’re right on the coast and the tip of the Island, it’s probably pretty important,” Myers said.
Monika Blats, another Port Alberni resident, agrees.
“Sirens are probably the most important part (in an emergency) because you need to be alerted and know what’s going on,” she said. “If you don’t have a siren how do you know to get out?”
City of Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps praised the response of local emergency officials, but nonetheless urged residents to sign up for the city’s alert system VicAlert.
‘The most important takeaway is that everybody should sign up for Vic-Alert,” he said.
Helps found about the alert at 2:30 a.m. and spent her morning at the emergency operations centre that the municipality had set up at Victoria’s Fire Hall #1 from where senior staff monitored the situation and issued alerts via social media, email, and even landlines.
“I felt very safe,” she said. “We had a run-through for this [near the start of the current term]. Everything went exactly as planned. Our staff was calm. I was calm.”
While City of Victoria staff did not evacuate any individuals, staff were prepared to handle evacuees, if necessary, Helps said.
Victoria does not have a siren system, and Helps warned against rushed calls for such a system. “You need to be very careful to place [such a system] in urban areas,” she said, adding that they can cause confusion.
So did Victoria dodge a bullet here? “I guess you can say it that way,” she said. “I’m glad our residents are safe.”