‘The tsunami alarm failed my household’: North Coast residents concerned over sirens, alerts

People living in northern communities share how they learned about Tuesday’s tsunami warning

It was 3 a.m. when Port Edward resident Laurie Proteau woke up to sounds of the tsunami sirens blaring.

The district had activated a local tsunami warning following an 7.9-magnitude earthquake in Alaska – similar to the protocols in several coastal cities across B.C.

Since then, the warning has been cancelled, offering residents across the province the reality of how vulnerable the coast is to these kinds of natural events.

Some residents have praised emergency crews and city officials, describing the subsequent evacuation of surrounding communities as “calm” and “organized” on social media, but others in the tiny community, located 20 kilometres outside of Prince Rupert, said they either didn’t get an alert or had troubles hearing the siren.

Proteau and her husband live on a Trimaran sailboat at Porpoise Harbour.

“We got off the boat and started talking to a few other people who also live on their boats. We had no idea what the siren was,” she said. “After checking our phones, we realized there was a tsunami warning and decided to get off of the floating dock and move to higher ground.”

Proteau said she wasn’t notified by any emergency personnel, “just a loud siren that we didn’t have a clue as to why it was ringing.”

But the pair knew they needed to get away from the water. They could drive to the Port Edward Recreation Centre, which was open for evacuees, but instead decided to join another couple and head to the nearby McDonald’s.

Port Edward’s chief administrative officer, Bob Payette, told Black Press Media emergency crews checked the docks once the evacuation order came down, and waited in the recreation centre until the warning was over.

Said Mayor Dave MacDonald: “The firemen did a good job, gave us a hand to make sure everyone was ok. I think we did everything we should have.”

Residents above the dock couldn’t hear sirens

Dontanya Wolfe said she could barely hear the siren from her home near the centre of town.

“I’m on Pacific Avenue, the same street as the village office, community hall and the school,” Wolfe said. “I stood outside my front door at 4 a.m. and could hear an alarm, but it was very quiet, as if far off in the distance.”

Wolfe said she woke up because of a text message from a friend about the tsunami warning.

“The alarm is on the fire hall,” she said. “Perhaps they should add a second alarm on top of the community centre. If a serious tsunami was to hit us, I would have been still asleep in my bed. The tsunami alarm failed my household.”

Payette said the sirens are positioned to provide maximum impact for those closest to the water and most at risk in a tsunami event.

As for those who weren’t sure what the sirens were for, he said the monthly community newsletter incudes details on what to do when the alarm is sounded.

“After last night, they should know for sure what it’s about,” the CAO said.

Public safety minister says alert system worked well

In the province, there’s a multi-tier protocol for when natural disasters occur.

Emergency Management BC is responsible for activating the Provincial Emergency Co-ordination Centre, and contacts five provincial regional operations centres. From there, districts and cities each have specific guidelines on how the alarms are sounded in emergency events.

Residents in their cities are urged to sign up for alerts through their municipalities, and once signed up should receive alerts through text message or email.

After Tuesday morning’s warning was cancelled, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said in a statement all emergency plans worked well.

“Although the tsunami warning was eventually suspended, this event demonstrates that coast warning systems do work,” he said.

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