Can the north coast handle a tsunami?

🕔Sep 22, 2005

No one was more surprised than Anne Mountifield of the Queen Charlotte City Emergency Preparedness committee to hear there were no plans in place in the event of a large wave sweeping the islands.

The confusion was due to a CBC interview with the Skeena/Queen Charlotte Islands Regional District administrator Janet Beil in January. Many eyebrows were raised locally and questions were directed at committee members, who had been involved in emergency planning for 12 years.

Beil had, she says, been speaking about the lack of an official plan for Area D, which includes rural communities like Miller Creek, Lawn Hill, Tlell and Tow Hill on Graham Island. Queen Charlotte City, she says, doesn’t officially have a plan, as there have been no bylaws enacted, but all British Columbia communities are now mandated under provincial legislation to have these in place by 2006.

With so many small communities, alternative lifestyle people, tourists and water-based industries such as fish farming and logging camps, emergency preparedness on the north coast presents inherent challenges, not the least of which is clear communication.

But while the devastation in Southeast Asia has left the world reeling, it has also kick-started efforts to improve the emergency systems on the coast of British Columbia.

“Communities across the province need to be prepared to deal with emergencies,” says Minister of Public Safety Rich Coleman, while announcing a $1 million pot of money to help coastal communities become better prepared for a tsunami.

Incorporated communities deemed at higher risk are eligible for $20,000 grants. Beil says the regional district also received $20,000, which they are prioritizing for use in rural areas on Graham Island. The federal government has anted up another $850,000 for First Nations communities. This means villages such as Hartley Bay, Old Massett and Rivers Inlet will be able to apply for their own grants.

With all this money dedicated to identify risks, develop enhanced response plans, as well as upgrade communication and warning systems, what is it exactly we are preparing for?

North coast residents have already had a few encounters with tsunami warnings, including when a 1964 earthquake rocked Valdez, Alaska and sent a wave bristling down the coast. This tsunami took many communities on Vancouver Island by surprise, such as Port Alberni, where 250 buildings were damaged and there was an estimated $10 million in direct losses, but no one was killed.

Residents of Tlell remember heeding the warning by dutifully evacuating half way up the Port Clements road for a cold night in their cars as the waves rolled by, causing no damage.

In Masset, there was a similar anti-climax. Kim Mushynsky of the Village of Masset’s emergency planning committee, was told the water only came a couple of inches above the high tide mark during the event.

“We were lucky because we were at a very low tide when the tsunami went by,” she says.

Fred Stephenson, from the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, is intrigued by these anecdotal memories, of which he has heard a number of versions. His records show a three-metre flood of water hitting Prince Rupert during high tide at two in the morning after the Valdez quake. Because residents are used to tide ranges of seven to nine metres, he reasons people may have downplayed the event in their minds.

“Because we have such large tides here we don’t tend to be over-awed by that sort of a change. It isn’t the same as dealing with people who live in the Indian Ocean and are used to a one-foot tide,” he says.

A strong winter storm can create similar seas, as residents of Tlell, on the east coast of Graham Island are well aware. The Dec. 24, 2003, storm sent waves over the road, washing more than 10 metres onto land. Highway workers remember removing 1,000 truckloads of debris.

Coastal first nations also tell of encounters with earthquakes, floods and waves, either through stories passed down among generations, or first person experiences while fishing off the west coast of Haida Gwaii.

The “big one,” that coastal communities fear, is likely to take place along what is known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

This is where the Juan de Fuca oceanic plate is pushing beneath the continental crust of North America. The area extends from the shores of western Vancouver Island as far south as California.

Stephenson says that communities to the west on Vancouver Island and east, in Hawaii, are at very high risk from a tsunami caused by a quake on this fault line, but communities north of the region less so. He points to the example of the recent tsunami in Asia.

“If you look at the countries to the north such as Myanmar, Bangladesh and the northern part of India did not suffer great destruction, and that same thing would happen with Cascadia.”

While there is a fault running along the west coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands, it is the strike/slip variety that means one plate is moving past the other. An earthquake in this zone would not generate vertical movement on the sea floor needed to create a tsunami, even though it could be very large.

For example, in 1949, Canada’s largest earthquake, measuring 8.1 hit the west coast of Haida Gwaii. John Cassidy, an earthquake seismologist with Natural Resource Canada says it was as big as the 1906 earthquake that destroyed San Francisco. Although it caused some damage to buildings in Queen Charlotte City and Prince Rupert, and was felt over a large region of western North America, it did not create a tsunami-like wave.

At the very south end of Moresby Island, the fault and the plates are not running parallel and the Pacific plate is pushing toward land, says Cassidy.

“In that region there is the potential for collisional earthquakes and those are the ones that create tsunamis,” he says.

As with distance earthquakes, such as the 1964 in Alaska or those from as far away as Japan, Cassidy says it is mainly the open waters of the west coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands or the areas open to the Pacific between the islands and Vancouver Island that are at risk.

“[Tsunamis] pretty well lose most of their energy by the time they wrap around,” he says, suggesting the east coast of the islands is fairly safe, but he suggests communities still should take precautions.

In Hecate Strait, Cassidy says, the largest recorded quake was 5.5, much too small to create a wave or even a landslide that could in turn cause a wave.

Kitimaat Village was struck by a tsunami caused by a submarine landslide on the other side of the Douglas Channel in 1975. The waves that washed over the village were up to eight metres and caused $600,000 in damages to boats, docks and other property.

There have been no locally generated tsunamis due to earthquakes in British Columbia waters in cultural memory, says Peter Anderson, who co-authored the 2004 report, “An Assessment of B.C. Tsunami Warning System and Related Risk Reduction Practices.”

This explains the relative lack of co-ordinated planning in coastal communities, he says.

With the diverse range of activities taking place on the coast, Anderson says the crucial factor in emergency planning is how well any plans are communicated down the lines from official warning to local emergency planners to residents, visitors and transient workers alike.

The international tsunami warning system is managed by the United States government and is designed to alert all nations bordering the Pacific Ocean. These notices go to the Provincial Emergency Program who then notifies all local governments, RCMP detachments, Coast Guard, Navigation Canada and media networks.

Each community has a different way of getting information to its residents, but Beil admits this is one of the shortfalls in the Skeena/Queen Charlotte regional district.

“We need a way to alert people if there is something going to be happening,” she says, adding she hopes to find funding to install sirens in some of the remote coastal communities.

The Village of Masset is one of the few communities with a tsunami alert siren. After the call is given, their plan is to evacuate about nine kilometres down the road to Port Clements to a place known as “garbage dump hill.” Even these simple instructions must be clearly communicated.

“One thing we are going to do, is buy signage,” says Mushynsky. “Because if you haven’t been here long enough you won’t know where that is. The garbage dump isn’t there anymore.”

The signage will also direct people to proper parking, leaving room for emergency vehicles.

In Queen Charlotte City, the plan is to retreat to 20 metres above the high tide mark, a provincial standard. Community members will be notified of impending emergencies by what is known as a fan-out procedure; the RCMP will go door-to-door and announce the evacuation over megaphones from their cars.

Coastal communities seem to have a special grasp of the impact of the Asian tsunami. A tiny village like Laxkw’alaams raised almost $7,000, while keenly feeling the losses of the Asian men who came in from fishing to find their entire village swept away.

Prince Rupert’s fire chief and head of emergency programs Ron Miller hopes the lesson of the Boxing Day disaster stays with people.

He plans to make use of the government funding to boost education programs, especially among those with businesses in the waterfront areas. He is also thinking of the thousands of visitors who pour off the cruise ships each week, who may be unaware they are in a tsunami zone and will have no idea how to evacuate from the area.

“Unfortunately incidents like this become very big news in people’s minds for a period of time and then they fade away and we have a tendency of putting it on the back shelf again,” he says.

What should you do in the event of a tsunami?

Just as in the aftermath of the Dec. 2003 storm on Haida Gwaii (left), you may have to act on your own to evacuate following a strong local earthquake.

  • Know your local community’s suggested evacuation routes to safe areas.
  • Be prepared to survive on your own for at least three days.
  • If you are camping near the ocean, you may have to abandon your belongings in order to save your life.
  • To be safe you should go to ground that is at least 15 metres above sea level.
  • NEVER go to the coast to watch a tsunami. A tsunami moves faster than a person can run.
  • Visit the Provincial Emergency Program website at for more information.