Communications proves critical for tsunami preparedness in remote Nuu-chah-nulth communities

Denise Titian and Eric Plummer, January 25, 2018

With phone lines down and no Internet, the coastal village of Oclucje didn’t find out about the emergency until hours afterwards. (Nuchatlaht First Nation photo)

West Coast Vancouver Island — 

The 7.9 Magnitude Alaskan earthquake that triggered a tsunami alert for coastal communities in the early hours of Jan. 23 was quite literally a wake-up call for isolated villages like Kyuquot, Yuquot and Oclucje.

While the feared tsunami waves never materialized on Vancouver Island, the warning systems and emergency evacuation planning were put to the test. In urban centres the first disaster warning came through text messages and community tsunami warning systems sounding the alarm, broadcasting messages over a speaker system.

But in small, isolated villages like Kyuquot and Oclucje, there is no such thing as a tsunami warning system. To make matters worse, both communities were without phone and Internet services from Jan. 22 – 24, according to Nuchatlaht Band Manager Mason Ducharme.

If a tsunami had been triggered on Jan. 23, Kyuquot would be the first Nuu-chah-nulth village struck. Oclucje, at the head of the long, narrow Espinoza Inlet, would be next.

Without phone or Internet service, the people of Kyuquot would not have known about the potential disaster if it wasn’t for Wayne Vincent and his VHF radio. According to Allison Vincent, her uncle Wayne leaves his VHF on all night, tuned in to the emergency channel. “He heard the warning and woke my other uncle Archie Vincent and, together, they started banging on doors and waking people up,” said Allison.

The village of Kyuquot is built on low-lying land very close to the open ocean. There are small islets, including Walter’s Island facing the village, that give it some protection from the open ocean. But there is a small channel that locals use to go out fishing. According to Vincent, sometimes the tidal surge through that channel is so strong that boats cannot power through it. Because of that, locals keep a close watch on the currents there. Vincent said they noticed that the waters were noisier than usual on Jan. 22 and they knew to watch for surges.

A few years earlier the community had a tsunami scare and worked together to evacuate people up the hill to the school, which also serves as their evacuation centre. There are three resident families, non-band members, living across the channel at Walter’s Island and sometimes a nurse or visiting workers may stay in accommodations there.

“We weren’t satisfied with our efforts the first time because we only got 70-80 per cent of the people to the safe zone,” said Vincent. So the people began planning for a more efficient emergency response. “We had people assigned to the band vehicles and others to assist elders to get them all to safety,” said Allison. In addition, they carried out an emergency drill very recently.

In this very real test of their emergency preparedness plan, Vincent said the community leapt to action after the 1:31 a.m. alert came in. This time, they had 100 per cent of the people safe and they could have done it in half an hour, “but we knew that we had time, because the waves were not supposed to arrive until about 4:30,” Vincent added.

Emergency responders not only cleared the village but also evacuated residents and construction workers staying at Walter’s Island and they made sure everyone had what they needed, including food, water and medication.

Meanwhile, over in the Nuchatlaht village of Oclucje, 30 residents were sound asleep in their beachfront homes, oblivious to the news of the tsunami. “We were literally in the dark – it was awful,” said Band Manager Mason Ducharme.

Residents there did not find out about the tsunami warning until 6:30 a.m. when a woman from Ehattesaht drove over the rough, coastal logging road to check on them.

Oclucje is a small community located at about 12 kilometres up Espinosa Inlet. There approximately a dozen residential homes are arranged in two tiers just above beach level.

Ducharme noted that without phone or Internet, there is no way to warn the 30 people of danger in Oclucje. “We are at the head of the inlet and my house is about 20 feet from the beach, we could have all been dead,” he said.

Ducharme is grateful to Jennifer John of Ehattesaht, who drove about 12 kilometers from her home near Zeballos to Oclucje to check on the people there after concerned relatives couldn’t make contact. Because the phone and Internet service was still down on Jan. 23, people from Nuchatlaht went to Ehattesaht to use their phones to assure relatives that they were safe and to contact Telus in search of answers.

“It’s not unusual for the phone and Internet service to go down at least four times a year and it’s not unusual for it to be down for up to seven days,” said Ducharme. “We don’t know why the phone service goes down, Telus won’t tell us,” he continued.

Telus actually upgraded its network for Kyuquot and Oclucje last year. A multiple-backup system was installed in the inlet that leads to Oclucje, said the company’s media spokesperson Liz Sauve.

“In Espinosa, the network is a state-of-the-art solar site, which is brand new technology,” she said. “The back-up form of power if the solar power is unable to support the site (which is possible during the winter months in the area) are propane-powered thermal generators, which are further backed up by batteries.”

But despite three forms of power and two backup systems in place, there was still a disruption in service during the tsunami warning.

“In this unusual instance last week, the recent storm diminished the solar output, and the generators failed and switched over the battery power,” explained Sauve. “Generally speaking, our team should be able to access the area to replace the generators during the time the batteries are providing power to the site. In this case, our team attempted to fly to Espinosa on Monday [Jan. 22] to replace the generators before service was disrupted, and were unable to land in the area because of poor weather.”

Further down the coast from Espinosa Inlet lies the Mowachaht/ Muchalaht First Nation village of Yuquot at the mouth of Nootka Sound. The site’s four permanent residents were sound asleep when the initial tsunami warning was issued, until the Williams family was awoken by the lighthouse keeper pounding on their door at approximately 3 a.m.

“My grandson woke me up,” said Ray Williams, who lives overlooking the bay with his wife Terry, grandson Darrell Jr. and great-grandson Isaiah.

The family quickly made their way through the dark to the uphill lighthouse for safety.

“The tide was high. We had to step in the water to get across the breakwater to get to the lighthouse,” said Williams. “We were struggling because my wife can’t walk far. She had to walk four or five steps, then crawl, stand up and try walking again four or five steps and crawl again.”

The family stayed in the lighthouse for an hour or so until hearing that the tsunami warning was cancelled. They noticed no change in the water after the earthquake, said Williams.

Following the scare, Nuchatlaht Tyee Ha’wilth Walter Michael called his administrative staff for a meeting to review what happened and come up with a safety plan. Ducharme said they talked about communications, evacuation plans and the need for equipment and supplies.

“There are probably two households and the band office that have VHF radios but none of them were on. We need one for every household but that’s expensive,” said Ducharme.

For now, the Nuchatlaht administration is communicating the need to Telus for improved service to their remote community. They are working on proposals for needed equipment to present to funding agencies.

If another tsunami warning comes, the people will be instructed to make their way to the water tank located up a hill behind the community. Ducharme does not know if it is high enough but it’s the highest point that people can walk to from their homes.

Nearly 54 years ago a tsunami actually did hit the west coast of Vancouver Island after the Good Friday earthquake struck south of Anchorage, Alaska. The 9.2 Magnitude quake brought devastation to Hot Springs Cove, a remote village north of Tofino that saw all but two homes washed away or significantly damaged.

What is now the community of Oclucje didn’t have residents back then, but Williams remembers the 1964 tsunami when a few families still lived in Yuquot.

“The ocean just went by us; the tide came up,” he said. “It didn’t do much here. All we saw was the ocean going by, a lot of waves.”

Historical records show that a far more devastating tsunami struck Vancouver Island in 1700. First Nations oral history recounts entire villages being destroyed.

Williams said the extent of that tidal wave is evident from pebbles found by Yuquot’s church and in a lake inland from the shore.

“The earthquake experts came here about 20 years ago,” he said. “They discovered all the pebbles that are in a lake had been washed over from the back beach because of a tsunami.”