British Columbia

B.C. tsunami warning came 39 minutes after U.S. alert

Questions are being raised about the provincial government's response to the weekend earthquake off B.C.'s northwest coast, after officials took more than half an hour to confirm the quake and issue a tsunami warning.

Delayed reaction by emergency officials raises questions

Quake response time

10 years ago
Duration 2:31
Emergency officials are responding to questions about their earthquake response time

Questions are being raised about the B.C. government's response to the weekend earthquake off the northwest coast after officials took more than half an hour to issue a tsunami warning.

The 7.7 magnitude quake struck at 8:04 p.m. PT Saturday, eventually triggering tsunami alerts and advisories along the West Coast of Canada and the U.S. and as far away as Hawaii.

Officials with the West Coast Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre have confirmed emergency officials in B.C. were on a West Coast conference call three minutes after the quake.

U.S. officials sent out their first tsunami bulletin immediately after the quake at 8:13 p.m. and then upgraded it to a tsunami warning for parts of the West Coast including B.C. three minutes later.

But emergency officials in B.C. did not issue any sort of tsunami alert or advisory for another 39 minutes, leaving many civic leaders in B.C. wondering what they were supposed to do.

Emergency Information B.C. issued its first tsunami warning on Twitter at 8:55 p.m. — long after the news stations had already begun reporting on the earthquake and local civic leaders had begun evacuations based on the U.S. alerts.

Chris Duffy, the executive director of operations with Emergency Management B.C., defends the response, saying the public alert is just one element of communications, adding that RCMP and community officials were alerted within minutes.

"Focusing on one element of a continuum of communications and saying this one or that one was slow today is not seeing the bigger picture," Duffy said.

"The real question here is: 'Were people aware of the potential threat, did they take appropriate actions?' How you were notified is not as important as were you notified."

Duffy says the organization is reviewing all aspects of its response to determine what it can do better in future.

Local officials concerned

While there were no reports of large waves, injuries or major damage in the end, some local officials, including Tofino Mayor Perry Schmunk, say the flow of information was too slow, prompting them to put their own plans into action while they waited for clarity from emergency officials in B.C.

"Not pointing the finger at anybody, but we decided to err on the side of caution and we instigated our response," Schmunk told CBC News.

"As it evolved and as it looked like it was of no issue, we’re happy to report that it was a good test of our systems and a test of how the community responded to the systems."

In Prince Rupert, about 220 kilometres from the epicentre, some people complained they heard no emergency messages to seek higher ground.

In the village of Tlell, on Haida Gwaii, Dutes Dutheil said he and his neighbours did not get enough information about what was happening.

"We still have no news, other than turning on the TV or radio — but if there's no power?" he said.

"There has to be some better way of communicating to people if there's an emergency and they have to evacuate," said Dutheil.

Officials pleased with response

Guy Urban, a seismologist at the  West Coast Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre, confirmed B.C.'s Provincial Emergency Program officials were already aware of the U.S. tsunami warning by the time a regional conference call ended at 8:17 p.m.

"PEP was part of that conference call ...They think if there was a problem, someone in their fan-out list didn't get the message," said Urban.

But Kelli Kryzanowski, the province's manager of strategic initiatives for Emergency Management B.C., said she was pleased with the way local governments and individuals reacted to the quake and the tsunami threat.

The agency activated nine operations centres and sent out thousands of voice calls, emails, and faxes to first responders, she said.

Kryzanowski said as soon as local officials learn of an earthquake on the West Coast, they should start their own emergency procedures without waiting for provincial alerts.

"After these types of events we always do an analysis and have discussion about what will be the best ways to further enhance," Kryzanowski said.

"So at this point we're just doing the post mortem on this, figuring, looking at what went well, some of the lessons we can learn, and then those discussions will take place down the road."

Premier Christy Clark said she was happy with the province's response to the earthquake.

"If there are things to learn, then we'll go back and look at them, but here's the thing: no one was hurt, no one was injured. The system worked," Clark said.

"If it wasn't perfect, then we're going to go back and figure that out. I don't know if our response ever is perfect, but we need to make sure that we learn."

Justice Minister Shirley Bond was also pleased with the response of emergency officials and local governments, but added that she won't offer her own assessment of the response until after the review is complete.

Bond also said that at least one government system may have had technical difficulties.

Alert timeline

The first U.S. warning issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center at 8:13 p.m. said a tsunami was not expected.

Then at 8:16 p.m. the center issued a new tsunami warning for coastal areas of B.C. from the north tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska.

It was not until 39 minutes later that the first tsunami warning was issued by B.C. emergency officials.

"A 7.7M #earthquake occurred 40 KM S of Sandspit, #BC at 8:04PM PDT," read Emergency Information B.C.'s first tweet at 8:55. "A #tsunami warning is in effect for north Vancouver Island."

Then at 9:06 pm, another B.C. agency — the Provincial Emergency Coordination Centre — issued its first tsunami warning by email to provincial emergency notification system recipients, including CBC News.

That warning covered the North Coast, Haida Gwaii, and the Central Coast including Bella Bella, Bella Coola and Shearwater.

"At this time it is believed that a low level tsunami could impact marinas and other coastal infrastructure. Or create strong currents in harbours and isolated coastal areas in these zones. Local governments in these zones are advised to activate their emergency plans and to immediately evacuate marinas, beaches and other areas that are below the normal high tide mark," said the warning.

At 9:20 p.m., Emergency Information B.C. issued a similar tweet, cancelling the warning for northern Vancouver Island and issuing a new one for areas closer to the quake.

"Tsunami warning for North Coast, Haida Gwaii & Central Coast. NO warning currently for North Van Island," said the 9:20 p.m. tweet.

With files from The Canadian Press