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Major earthquake gives real-life drill to B.C. first responders

Major earthquake gives real-life drill to B.C. first responders

At 8:03 on Saturday night, one minute before the worst quake in 60 years hit the west coast, on-call seismologist John Cassidy was on his hands and knees, sweating and straining as he ripped carpet up in his Sidney home.

In Queen Charlotte City, volunteer fire chief Larry Duke had big plans. It was time to get dressed for the biggest fire department fundraiser of the year: the Halloween dance. Doors were set to open at 10 p.m. and he was going as Napoleon Dynamite. “I had everything laid out, the wig, glasses the moon boots, the vote-for-Pedro T-shirt.”

He had just given his six-year-old son Riley a teaspoon of cough medicine and tucked him back into bed.

Then he felt the rumble.

At precisely 8:04, the vibrations pulsed through Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert, bouncing residents as far away Terrace and Kamloops.

In Terrace, reporter Anna Killen was in the bathroom, just starting to do her makeup for her costume: evil gypsy unicorn. She had just affixed the black horn to her head when she saw the mirror move. “I was still on my first glass of wine. I thought I was having an anxiety attack,” she said. She ran into the living room, the vertical blinds were swaying and rattling like a paranormal event.

Back in Queen Charlotte City, Mayor Carol Kulesha was cosying up to watch some TV. She had settled in, she might not go to fire department dance but if she did, a Bedouin dress, her go-to costume, was ready. Her Manchester terrier, Chili, was at her feet.

Then it hit.

“It felt like a freight train was coming through my house. It was that loud.”

Chili leaped up and stared at her. Do something.

The 60-seconds of shaking felt like minutes to Duke.

“We’re used to small quakes, they feel like trucks going by. But this one continued to build and build.”

Little Riley ran out of his bedroom crying. Duke grabbed him. His first impulse was to go into the living room, which had a high ceiling, then his training kicked in. “We went under the dining room table. Then the power went out, which added to the scariness of the whole thing.”

In the basement, his wife was about to start a yoga class with some friends. They fumbled toward a doorway and clung together.

Kathy Goalder, the wharfinger at the Sandspit marina was unwinding with a game of darts at the Bunkhouse when she felt the shaking.

She thought people were partying inside, jumping up and down on the floor, making it shake.

But the tremor continued. And continued. And continued.

She ran home to find the bricks stacked around her wood stove had fallen over and water slopped out of the aquarium.

Goalder runs the marina in the tiny town that sits on a sand spit, flanked on either side by beaches.

Most of her friends hopped in their trucks and headed for higher ground.

She ran out to watch for a tsunami or high waves.

It was dark and snowing heavily. The ocean was eerily silent. “Everything was dead calm. not a breath of air. I couldn’t even hear the ocean.”

In Queen Charlotte City, Mayor Kulesha scooped up her dog and, in the dark, grabbed her emergency kit from the hall closet. “It lasted and lasted, it felt like forever.”

She began to pound out the calls on her cellphone as she scrambled into her car to get to the RCMP building.

That’s also when she started making her list of what needs to work better the next time this happens. With the power out, communications faltered. “I could not call people I knew that had cordless phones or no cellphone. If you’re in a remote area like mine, that’s a huge issue.”

At 8:08, the two phones that seismologist John Cassidy wears harnessed to his body at all times buzzed and vibrated.

He dropped his carpet and tools. The adrenalin was already kicking in.

“Anything larger than a (magnitude) 4 triggers all these bells and whistles. We have seismographs all across Canada, they measure and send signals in real time, so we can see just how the ground is shaking. The signals go from the instrument up to a satellite and bounce back to our office.”

When he got the first report, that the earthquake was a 7.1, and the follow up 7.7 as additional data came in, he kicked into high gear.

“When you are up to a magnitude 7, it’s potentially devastating.”

Within 20 minutes, he and his associates from Sidney’s Pacific GeoScience Centre would have information posted and were continually updating it.

Cassidy would work through the night, fielding calls and delivering information for emergency management organizations, tsunami warning systems, monitoring aftershocks and assessing exactly what happened along the fault line. Manning three phones, he put his 20-year-old son to work helping field the calls.

In Queen Charlotte City, Mayor Kulesha met with fire chief Duke at RCMP headquarters. A state of emergency was declared. Firefighters, ambulance crews and other volunteers had thrown emergency vests over their Halloween costumes.

“One lady showed up in a cocktail dress and rubber boots,” said Kulesha.

Already firefighters were door-knocking on the shoreline homes, and using loudspeakers to clear the coastal town. A steady line of tail lights snaked up the logging roads to higher ground.

“I was really proud of everyone,” said Kulesha, adding the event was an opportunity to learn. “Communications for us is the largest issue. I think we need to have more discussion with the federal government about infrastructure.”

After the Southeast Asia Tsunami in 2004, the need for a Tsunami siren had become apparent; one is on order, but hasn’t been delivered yet.

In Terrace, reporter Killen stayed home for an hour or so. “We were worried the Skeena (River) was going to flood,” she said. When it became clear the threat was over, she went to a Halloween party — and it was a good one. “We all had something to talk about.”

In Sandspit, Goalder inspected the marina and the fuel tanks. “It was rocking pretty good, but there was no real damage,” she said.

Queen Charlotte fire chief Duke said some community members were put out that, once the tsunami warning was called off, the dance didn’t go ahead as scheduled. It’s the biggest fundraiser of the year for the small town’s emergency services.

“We’ll have another one later on. We’ll call it the Aftershock,” said Duke.

By 5 p.m. on Sunday, seismologist Cassidy was still up, sleepless in Sidney and fielding phone calls as aftershocks continued. The torn-up carpet would have to wait.


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Weekend quake prompts questions about B.C. emergency response

Weekend quake prompts questions about B.C. emergency response

VANCOUVER — Lisa Kendall really only needs to answer two questions before she decides whether a tsunami might be heading towards her small community on British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii islands.
Has there been an earthquake? Was the ground shaking so much that it was difficult to stand? If the answer is yes to both, then it’s time to get to higher ground.
That’s what happened Saturday evening as a magnitude-7.7 earthquake struck just offshore and shook Haida Gwaii and a large stretch of coastal British Columbia.

It was the only tsunami warning Kendall, the emergency co-ordinator for Skidegate, needed before she and other local emergency officials mobilized an evacuation.
“Anything that’s hard to stand up in for more than a minute, you go to higher ground,” Kendall said in an interview, adding that many in her community came to the same conclusion on their own.
“By the time we got to the firehall, 15 minutes after the earthquake, there was already steady streams of cars going up to the high ground. People went and grabbed all the elders, their relatives.”
The weekend earthquake has prompted scrutiny of how the provincial government handled the quake, with emergency co-ordinators in some municipalities complaining that it took as long as an hour before they heard anything official.

It has also revealed the challenges facing local and regional governments when it comes to communicating those warnings to the public, with some citizens glued to social media and others, like some in Haida Gwaii, living in remote areas without telephone service.

Another earthquake also rattled the area Monday night, striking at 7:49 p.m. with a magnitude-6.2 and at a depth of nine kilometres, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Officials have said they expected aftershocks from Saturday’s quake to continue for several days. One on Sunday had a magnitude of 6.4
Kendall said she didn’t receive anything directly from the government for about an hour Saturday night, but she called the provincial emergency program herself a few minutes after the earthquake and was told there was a tsunami warning.

Officials in some communities, such as Prince Rupert on the mainland, said they received word from the province within 10 or 15 minutes of the quake.
Others, including several on Haida Gwaii, said they didn’t hear anything for about an hour, but they all pointed out their emergency plans take effect as soon as the ground starts to move.
“There was a delay,” said Carol Kulesha, the mayor of the Village of Queen Charlotte.

“But we didn’t depend on that. We got notification directly from the source. We understand we’re remote and that no one is going to come in the beginning to take care of us. We just put our plan into effect.”

Debate about the province’s response prompted Justice Minister Shirley Bond, whose ministry oversees disaster response, to announce on Sunday there would be a full review of what happened.
The earthquake occurred a few minutes after 8 p.m. on Saturday, though the first B.C. government media bulletin warning of a tsunami wasn’t issued until about 9:05. Meanwhile, the first mention of the warning on the official Emergency Info BC Twitter account wasn’t posted until 8:55.

Chris Duffy, executive director of operations with Emergency Management BC, said his office sent out initial details about the tsunami warning 12 minutes after the quake in an email that went to various communities and agencies.

He couldn’t explain why some officials said they didn’t receive word for an hour, but he said the quick response on the ground suggested people had enough information to act.
“Their first notification was from Mother Nature and that was when the ground shook violently,” Duffy told reporters during a conference call.

“To say that folks on Haida Gwaii didn’t get information and didn’t get contact is not quite a fair characterization of what occurred. They had the initial ground shake and took action. They certainly had contact from my staff within minutes.”

Duffy added that many local emergency personnel, as well as news outlets, would have received a warning from the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center a few minutes after the quake.
The actual responses in each community varied, depending on the resources available and the people living there.

There is only one tsunami siren on Haida Gwaii, located in the community of Massat. It was blaring a warning almost immediately after the earthquake.

In communities such as Queen Charlotte, which is waiting for a new tsunami siren to be delivered, police cruisers drove around using their loudspeakers to warn residents.

Tow Hill Road, a tiny community on the north end of Haida Gwaii, has an automated phone system to call residents in an emergency, but emergency co-ordinator Chris Ashurst said telephone numbers become out of date and some residents don’t even have phones.

“We do rely on people checking on their neighbours,” said Ashurst.

“We’ll use any tool we can out here. If it’s driving up people’s driveways and banging on the door, then that’s what we use.”
None of the communities in the immediate vicinity of the quake appeared to rely on social media to get the word out. Emergency Info BC was mocked on Twitter by users complaining about the dearth of information, which prompted whoever was overseeing the agency’s account to write: “We do not compete with media (or Twitter).”
Andrew Sachs of Witt Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based company that specializes in emergency preparedness, said social media and mobile technology are fast becoming powerful tools to get information out during a potential disaster.

“You can actually provide visual messages and you can actually choose, based upon where a cellphone is located, what type of messaging goes out,” Sachs said in an interview.
But Sachs acknowledged such technology has limitations, notably that many demographics aren’t plugged in to social media.
“All of these tools are partial solutions,” he said.

“You’re unlikely to get a substantial hit among seniors 65 and older from tweeting, but for people 30 and under, that may be one of the best tools available to reach them. The people who receive those tweets often begin to pass that message along, using not only social media but also more traditional forms of communication.”


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B.C. tsunami warning cancelled after Alaska quake

B.C. tsunami warning cancelled after Alaska quake

A powerful earthquake sparked a brief tsunami warning for a lengthy stretch of the coasts of British Columbia early Saturday, but no damaging waves were generated and the warning was cancelled.

The magnitude 7.5 quake did generate a small tsunami, but the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center said the waves didn’t pose a threat.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake struck at about 12:50 a.m. PT about 100 kilometres west of Craig, Alaska, and some 300 kilometres west-northwest of Prince Rupert, B.C. The tremor struck at a depth of about 10 kilometres.

A tsunami warning quickly followed for about 1,125 kilometres of coastline from Cape Fairweather, Alaska, to the northern tip of Vancouver Island, and an advisory was issued for the B.C. coast as far south as Victoria.

A warning means an area is likely to be hit by a wave, while an advisory means there may be strong currents without widespread inundation.

The earthquake happened along the same fault line as the one that struck off B.C.’s Haida Gwaii last October, but in a section that has not seen this kind of strong seismic activity for a few hundred years, says CBC meterologist and seismologist Johanna Wagstaffe.
Seismologist Jana Pursley of the U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was followed by six aftershocks, the strongest of which registered a 5.1 and came nearly four hours after the initial quake.

The Alaska Tsunami Warning Center had initially warned that “significant widespread inundation” of land was expected along with possible coastal flooding.

But it later cancelled the warning, saying the waves were too small to pose a threat, reaching just 15 centimetres above normal sea level.

CBC meteorologist Joanna Wagstaffe said a small tsunami wave was generated off Port Alexander, Alaska. In addition, at least two strong aftershocks measuring 4.5 and 4.7 were reported after the initial quake.

“But there are dozens of smaller aftershocks occurring,” Wagstaffe said.

“Woke me up from a dead sleep,” said one woman describing the initial quake on her Twitter feed from Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands in B.C., which was hit by a 7.7-magnitude quake last October.

People gather at Sitka High School early Saturday in Sitka, Alaska, following a magnitude 7.5 earthquake. (Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson/Associated Press)
The quake also woke Carol Kulesha, mayor of Queen Charlotte City.

“I was asleep and I heard a clattering sound and the house was shaking, so I definitely felt this one, although it was nothing like the previous one that was 7.7,” she said.

Kulesha said the fire department sounded the alarm for people to evacuate to higher ground. After the warning was cancelled, a fire department crew was “sent back to the hills to tell people they can go home now.”

‘Sounded like a big Mack truck’
“It was scary,” said Annette Reaves, who works at the hospital in the town of Sitka, Alaska.

“It shook the staff here at the hospital for about 15 seconds. It wasn’t a rolling kind of shake, but it was just a trembling shake. It sounded like a big Mack truck coming through,” Reaves said.

Alex Godin, who was working at a Tim Hortons in Prince Rupert, B.C., when the quake struck, said the tremor was barely noticeable and “felt like a bump.”

She said patients remained calm as they were advised to move away from windows, but officials decided the hospital did not have to be evacuated.

Before the early Saturday tsunami warning was cancelled, B.C.’s emergency notification centre said a tsunami could impact low-lying coastal areas in northern and central areas.

People evacuated homes in Kincolith, B.C., north of Prince Rupert, near the Alaskan border. (Courtesy of Adrian Stewart)
The Alaska Tsunami Warning Center had warned that “significant widespread inundation of land is expected,” adding that dangerous coastal flooding was possible.

In its cancellation statement, the centre said some areas were seeing just small sea level changes.

When a tsunami warning is issued, people are advised to move to higher ground.

Shortly after the quake struck, a tsunami advisory was issued for the outer west coast of Vancouver Island from Cape Scott to Cape Renfrew and in the Juan de Fuca Strait from Jordan River to Greater Victoria, but Julianne McCaffrey of Emergency Management B.C. told CBC News that advisory was soon cancelled.

No connection to South Coast

Saturday’s quake was likely indirectly connected to the 7.7 quake in October off the coast of Haida Gwaii, according to Simon Fraser University professor John Clague.

Clague told CBC News that the earlier earthquake might have set up the stresses that caused the second one.

But he also said these tremors do not necessarily mean a similar quake is imminent for B.C.’s South Coast, because different fault systems are involved.

“It’s separate from what’s happening on the South Coast because we have a different geologic or tectonic environment. So, I wouldn’t worry that these recent earthquakes would trigger an earthquake on the South Coast,” Clague said.

Clague added, however, that although there is no causal relationship between the two systems, there still remains the possibility of a damaging earthquake on the South Coast. There are many faults in the region and a history of at least one catastrophic quake in the last several centuries.


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4.7M earthquake strikes off Alaska

4.7M earthquake strikes off Alaska

Another small earthquake has struck off the West Coast about 200 miles south of Juneau, Alaska.

Officials with the U.S. Geological Survey reported the 4.7 magnitude quake struck at 10:45 a.m. PT, but no tsunami warning was issued. The quake was initially reported as 5.5M, but later downgraded.

On Saturday a 7.5M quake struck the same area, triggering a tsunami warning that was later cancelled.


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