Victoria mayor defends tsunami evacuation plan as text-alert subscriptions soar

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is defending the way residents were alerted about a potential tsunami Tuesday morning, even though some residents say they never found out about it at all.

Disaster alerts in Victoria need 'targeted approach,' not sirens, Mayor Lisa Helps says

An evacuation route sign in Port Renfrew, B.C., after tsunami warning sirens went off in many coastal communities on British Columbia's west coast Tuesday morning. Victoria has no such alarms and instead uses a phone messaging system to alert residents of potential disasters. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

The mayor of Victoria is defending the way residents were alerted about a potential tsunami Tuesday morning.

Despite many people saying they didn't get the message at all, Lisa Helps says the city was adequately prepared for tsunami-related evacuations, which never became necessary.

"We were wanting to make sure we had to evacuate before we went ahead," she told CBC Radio's All Points West host Jason D'Souza Tuesday about the immediate hours after the warning.

"We had the resources in place and ready to deploy .… Should we have needed to evacuate, we would have been able to do so."

Many people received a phone message from Vic-Alert at around 3 a.m. PT Tuesday warning them of the tsunami, but some have reported not getting it, either because their phone was off or silenced.

Following Tuesday's tsunami warning, subscriptions to Vic-Alert saw more than a five-fold increase.

Despite some people reporting that they were alerted by family and friends — some of whom live half a world away — Helps says the current system works well for the city.

'Targeted approach'

Modelling shows that Victoria is well protected from a tsunami, Helps said. 

If one did affect the provincial capital, she said, it wouldn't be a massive, towering wave crashing down on the city.

Instead, it would be more like a 1½-to-three-metre rise in sea level, which would only affect certain homes in neighbourhoods like the Gorge area, James Bay and Fisherman's Wharf.

Helps says there were enough fire crews to go door to door and get people out of those low-lying areas.

She says that's better than a siren system that would alert people who may not need to be alerted.

"We have the luxury of resources to take a more targeted approach," the mayor said. "That's the kind of emergency management plan I think is effective: safe and orderly, not a siren ringing and 80,000 people running to goodness knows where."

Vic-Alert subscriptions jump

Helps did agree that if the tsunami fears exposed anything, it's that there could be better awareness of the Vic-Alerts system.

She says this morning, only 6,400 of the approximately 80,000 people in Victoria were signed up for the system.

By the afternoon, that number jumped by more than five times to almost 35,000.

"It's amazing," she said.

Helps said the Vic-Alerts system can provide better information about where people should go if they need to evacuate because of a disaster and even whether or not they need to evacuate at all.

With files from CBC Radio One's All Points West