People in tsunami risk areas should be prepared to evacuate before the official warning, expert says

Rory Smith was sleeping when the tsunami warning sirens blared early Thursday but she managed to get out of her house in the village of Kitimaat, B.C., thanks to her grandmother waking her up.

“She said that there [was] a tsunami coming and I had to run up the hill,” Smith said. “I ran downstairs, got my brother, then after that we just got our cats and the carriers, and then got my dog ready and then got out the door.”

Smith was among 800 village residents who moved to higher ground as a precaution and waited for emergency officials to evaluate the tsunami risk generated by one of the most powerful North American earthquakes since 1965.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said the quake measured magnitude 8.2 and hit 91 kilometres east southeast of Perryville, Alaska, at about 8:15 p.m. PT Wednesday. It struck about 46 kilometres below the surface of the ocean, according to the USGS.

“Everyone was tired … definitely tired,” she said of the 2:30 a.m. PT time when officials finally confirmed there was no tsunami threat.

Smith, 20, still recalls the 7.7-earthquake that hit Haida Gwaii in October 2012, triggering tsunamis in some parts of B.C.’s North Coast.

“I didn’t know what was going on for 100 per cent [at] that time, but I was definitely scared because my dad was running around screaming,” she said.

Natural Resources Canada seismologist John Cassidy says the Wednesday quake — caused by the Pacific tectonic plate being pushed beneath the continental plate that Alaska sits on — wasn’t strong enough to create big tsunamis on the coast, but was able to create small ones in the middle of the ocean.

Cassidy says it takes time to analyze the earthquake data to determine whether a tsunami will likely happen, but he agrees that people should take precautionary measures if they’re unsure and don’t feel safe.

“When there isn’t time [to analyze the data] for a very large nearby earthquake … and in that case, if you feel strong shaking in your near water, that’s your alert to move,” he told Andrew Kurjata, the guest host of CBC’s Daybreak North.

Natural Resources Canada seismologist John Cassidy says people should be ready to leave their homes if they feel strong shaking in the water near them. (NRCAN)

North Coast regional district chief administrative officer Daniel Fish says while it makes sense for people getting prepared for natural disasters, it’s still the best practice to await directions from local authorities.

“Undertaking an evacuation where the provincial emergency management system has indicated that there is no threat … is also a little bit anxiety-inducing,” Fish said. 

Chris Ashurst, a volunteer emergency co-ordinator with the Tow Hill Road Community in Masset, B.C., recommends people visit the website for the latest information about tsunami risks near them. (Chris Ashurst/Facebook)

Chris Ashurst, a volunteer emergency co-ordinator with Tow Hill Road Community in Masset of Haida Gwaii, says he understands local authorities may be cautious about issuing tsunami evacuation orders because they don’t want to stress people out but residents should stay ready and informed when a natural disaster occurs.

“I would encourage people to go and bookmark that site, because you can just log in and you can monitor in real time about what they’re finding and how long the anticipated time for a tsunami ─ if one was generated — would take to arrive at any particular place,” he said.

“Charge your phone, turn on the radio, maybe confirm where your 72-hour evacuation kit is,” he continued. “If you have a car, you should be preparing, but not necessarily ready to leave … just start getting your kit together and get ready to go.”

He also suggests Haida Gwaii residents sign up for emergency alerts to natural disasters.

It’s time to listen again to CBC Vancouver’s seismologist Johanna Wagstaffe’s podcast Fault Lines.

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