Tsunami Alert

Following the tsunami alert in British Columbia on 23 January 2018, BC Public Safety Minister, Mike Farnworth, announced publicly that "the staff at both the municipal and provincial level" had done "an amazing job." 

But how was this emergency actually handled by BC officials? Here's a harsh reality check.

A 7.9 magnitude earthquake was reported at 01:31 PST on 23 January 2018 near Kodiak off the coast of Alaska. The potential resulting tsunami wave was expected to reach the northern part of British Columbia within an hour (around 02:30 PST), and the rest of the province, including Vancouver Island and Vancouver, within two to three hours (around between 03:30 and 04:30 PST).

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At 02:07 PST, 36 minutes after the earthquake in Alaska, NORSKK and JÓMSVÍKINGAR issued a tsunami warning across all social media. 23 minutes before the first expected wave in northern British Columbia, as well as between 1h23 and 2h23 before the first expected wave in the rest of British Columbia, including the Greater Victoria Area.

Mike Farnworth, BC Public Safety Minister, was notified of the earthquake around 02:00 PST, or about the time both NORSKK and JÓMSVÍKINGAR issued an official tsunami warning. What ensued is a series of failings by the British Columbia municipal and provincial government that resulted in people either not being warned of the situation, or being warned too late.

In Port Alberni, Mayor Mike Rutan was notified of the Tsunami warning at 02:35 PST, 28 minutes after NORSKK and JÓMSVÍKINGAR warning. He did not elect to activate tsunami sirens in his town until 03:00 PST, or 53 minutes after NORSKK and JÓMSVÍKINGAR warning, and only 30 minutes before the first wave was expected to hit parts of Vancouver Island, depriving local residents of valuable time to evacuate and reach higher grounds.

In Victoria, a city of 85,000 people, no tsunami sirens were activated, because the city does not have a tsunami warning system. Instead, emergency personnel went door to door to warn a very limited number of residents, leaving them no time to actually reach higher grounds. While Mayor Lisa Helps eventually activated the Vic Alert communication system, she did so after the first wave would have hit Victoria, and only reached 6,400 residents registered on a system widely unknown to the majority of the population. 

In Port Renfrew, CRD officials could have activated tsunami sirens manually, as the system is currently being implemented and not fully operational. However, they did not. 

In Sooke, there was no tsunami warning system to be activated, and no emergency personnel reached the residents most vulnerable to a tsunami wave. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of the 13,000 residents of Sooke remained asleep and blissfully unaware of the situation.

In Vancouver, no warning was issued, by any method whatsoever. 

For those coastal BC residents warned of the risk of tsunami through NORSKK and JÓMSVÍKINGAR, or friends and family in other countries, and seeking information, the official BC Emergency web site, http://www.emergencyinfobc.gov.bc.ca was unreachable. 

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Had a tsunami wave hit any coastal area of British Columbia, the event would have resulted in catastrophic loss of life, because BC municipal and provincial government officials, once again, failed to warn residents of the risk of a tsunami, let alone, assist in their evacuation.

The issue arises out of two major problems. First, there is no provincial tsunami warning system, with each municipality being responsible for managing tsunami alerts and other emergencies. This leads to utter chaos and miscommunications with every emergency, as well as a complete lack of common procedures and protocols.

Second, is a systemic risk management failure at all municipal and provincial government levels, with officials consistently refraining from issuing alerts until they are certain a tsunami wave is actually coming, by which time it would be too late to evacuate. This is in contrast to the approach in most other countries, including the United States and Norway, where an alert would be issued upon the occurrence of an event, on the off-chance that there is a risk of substantial loss of life, as it would invariably be the case should a tsunami reach the coast of British Columbia.

When will BC municipal and provincial government officials actually fulfill their duties to protect the lives of the very people who finance their salaries through taxes often much higher than in many other parts of the world?