If it’s not a potlatch or a music festival, this kind of Haida Gwaii traffic can only mean one thing — tsunami warning. (Submitted)

If it’s not a potlatch or a music festival, this kind of Haida Gwaii traffic can only mean one thing — tsunami warning. (Submitted)

Overnight scare shines light on Haida Gwaii tsunami plans

Haida Gwaii woke to a real alarm early Tuesday morning — tsunami.

Driving in the dark, hundreds evacuated to designated safe sites or to friends’ houses on higher ground.

It was 1:31 a.m. when a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck the Gulf of Alaska at a fairly shallow depth. The first wave was expected to reach Haida Gwaii’s northernmost island, Langara, at 3:10 a.m.

Thankfully, it was a “strike-slip” not a “thrust” quake, so it didn’t move much water — the biggest tsunami wave it generated measured just 12 cm when it hit Langara at 3:30 a.m.

An hour later the warning was cancelled and everyone went home safe.

But for several hours, islanders were in the dark, not knowing if the tsunami waves were going to be 12 cm or 10 storeys tall.

From Old Massett to Sandspit, local emergency responders say the evacuations went pretty well, though not without problems.

“It’s so fresh and raw right now that I’m looking forward to the debrief,” said Larry Duke, fire chief for the Village of Queen Charlotte.

“Overall, I think it went well. But I would encourage people to give feedback about any challenges they experienced — it’s the only way we can really hear from folks.”

Many people praised the islands’ new alert system, ePACT — a free tool that sends phone, text, or email alerts to registered users — though responders said the first alerts could have gone out sooner. Some time was lost deciding who should send out a single, all-islands alert.

And despite wailing sirens, fire trucks, and neighbours, several people did sleep the whole night through.

A few who got the warning even refused to leave.

Kyle Marshall, the Skidegate fire chief, was among the first to get an alert, thanks to a call from family in Alaska.

“My in-laws live on Prince William Sound, and they called a few minutes after the ground stopped shaking,” Marshall said.

By 1:53 a.m., when other first responders were just waking up to the first alert from Emergency Management BC, Marshall had already phoned his neighbours, packed supplies and started driving to get an emergency centre open at Sk’aadgaa Naay Elementary.

A line of cars up north

In northern Graham Island, where crews need to organize the largest evacuation, the EMBC alert is what got Old Massett Fire Chief Peter White and Masset Emergency Co-ordinator Trevor Jarvis out of their beds.

By 2:04 a.m., Jarvis had sounded Masset’s tsunami and fire sirens, and also sent the first alerts out on ePACT. Firefighters and RCMP drove through the village blaring a message to evacuate and picked up people who needed a ride.

At the same time in Old Massett, Peter White put on his firefighting gear and got behind the wheel of a 20-metre school bus. He drove through the village and stopped at the Northern Haida Gwaii Hospital, picking up all kinds of passengers along his regular bus route.

“Mostly in the village I just picked them up like school kids,” he said.

Up front, White had one radio tuned to the Coast Guard and a second one to keep in touch with police and firefighters, who were also circling the village warning people to leave.

Less than an hour later, White had the warm bus parked in the designated evacuation site south of Masset, full of evacuees. The last cars came up the hill from Old Massett, Masset, and Tow Hill just before 3 a.m.

“I’m proud of my team,” said White.

Even though he was away visiting family in Victoria, Chris Ashurst, emergency coordinator for Tow Hill, was up beaming alerts and making calls to help people back home from 2 to 4 a.m.

“There are some bugs we’ll need to work out,” said Ashurst, especially the time lost deciding who should send the first alert. That’s something the Haida Gwaii Emergency Management Committee expects to plan and practice soon, until there is a solid protocol.

A few newcomers on Tow Hill Road got no alerts and heard no sirens Tuesday, but they still got out safe thanks to people who laid on the horn as they drove by.

“Actually, that’s a great idea, to have everybody hit their horn as they go through and get everybody else up,” Ashurst said.

When everyone arrived at the north-end evacuation site, cars lined the highway — no one had keys to open the gates to the clearing.

“We had to use our magic tools,” said White, who finally cut the locks and drove the bus in, a bit nervously since the rain made it extra hard to see.

The access roads to the site should have reflective sticks along them so that no one drives off the embankments, he said.

“If we had some snow falling, I wouldn’t even open that up,” White said, adding that the clearing needs better drainage, too.

As it happens, the night before the tsunami warning, Masset village councillors voted in favour of a plan to build a storage facility for the evacuation site — right now, the clearing is empty.

“Basically, what we’re doing is taking three shipping containers, putting them in a horseshoe shape, and putting a roof over it,” said Trevor Jarvis.

“That gives us dry, secure storage, and a dry area to work under — it’s not meant to house everybody.”

While Masset and Old Massett councillors have talked in the past about building and stocking the facility together, there has been little progress in the last year.

After the evacuation Tuesday, White said that should change.

“When things come up like this, people get their eyes open, ears open.”

“The big thing is we need to figure out how to have these earthquakes not in the middle of the night,” joked Ashurst.

“I’ll be working with the seismologists on that one.”

A map shows the likely travel time of a tsunami from the Alaska earthquake. Some people got confused by a U.S.-based alert that warned tsunami might reach Haida Gwaii after 2 a.m., but that alert was in Alaska standard time, and the largest tsunami wave didn’t arrive until 3:30 a.m.

An all-islands shake-up

In Sandspit, Fire Chief Bob Ells said people evacuated pretty quickly to the designated site above the BC Hydro generators, about 2 km east of the marina. The siren at the airport sounded, and firefighters drove all through the village and out to Hardingville to wake everyone up.

Like the north-end evacuation site, Sandspit’s is just a clearing right now, though there are plans for storage there, too. But recent work by forestry companies made it a relatively easy drive up, Ells said.

Others drove further, going up logging roads closer to Alliford Bay, where there is better cell-phone reception.

“Cell service is a bit spotty where out site is,” Ells said.

Along with other responders, Ells recommended the ePACT alerts and having a 72-hour emergency bag — he has a backpack with food and gear, plus a ready-made kit he bought years ago.

Drills like the annual Great B.C. ShakeOut have helped get people ready, Ells said, noting that more people in Sandspit are now aware of which neighbours might need help because of mobility issues.

Cell-phone service is also a no-go in Port Clements and most of Tlell, but emergency crews in both places said evacuations went well, with many gathered at the Port Clements Multiplex, Mayer Lake, and areas of high ground.

In Queen Charlotte, where a large part of the village is above the likely inundation zone, Fire Chief Larry Duke said people living on boats in the marina and lower areas seemed to get the message. Many gathered at the designated muster areas on First Street behind the high school and on Forestry Hill, as well as on Hippie Hill and the lobby of the new hospital.

If the evacuation had gone much longer, Duke said they would have opened a full-on reception centre at the Queen Charlotte Youth Centre.

“We’ve trended away from the high school,” he said. “The youth centre is just slightly higher.”

While ePACT alerts reached many, Duke said he knows any one system isn’t perfect. Sirens, Facebook, and door-knocking all came in handy, too.

“Like anything, it has its limitations,” he said. “If your phone wasn’t on or you didn’t hear it, you would have missed the call.”

Kyle Marshall said a few dozen people sheltered at Sk’aadaa Naay, and the eight firefighters who were in the village managed to evacuate several elders from homes on Front Street.

One thing that made Marshall nervous is the people who decided they didn’t want to evacuate, and stayed home.

“It puts a lot more people at risk,” Marshall said, adding that there may be a bit of a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” effect after a few recent evacuations without any big tsunamis hitting populated areas.

Of course, by the end of that story, the wolf finally showed.

“Just because we’ve been evacuated to the heights several times over the years, it doesn’t mean that the next one is going to be the same,” Marshall said.