Members of the Tseshaht emergency response receive a Premier's Excellence Award for their participation in Exercise Coastal Response. From left to right: Lillian Dick, Richard Sam, Gina Pearson, Holly McLaughlin, Hugh Braker, Vicki-Lee Baillie, Virginia Shrimpton and Boyd Fred. (Shayne Morrow photo)
Tseshaht First Nation has received a Premier’s Excellence Award for their full-throated performance in Exercise Coastal Response.
At 7:45 a.m. on June 7, 2016, a Magnitude 9.0 “earthquake” struck off the west coast of Vancouver Island, causing catastrophic damage and sending a 20-metre tsunami surging upthe Alberni Inlet. Over the next three days, Tseshaht took a leading role in search and rescue operations, evaluating damage and restoring services, as well as providing facilities for rescue exercises.
Hugh Braker, who chairs the Tseshaht Emergency Preparedness Committee, said the framed award arrived with little fanfare.
“We just [got] it in the mail yesterday,” Braker said on Friday. “This award is actually for our participation in Exercise Coastal Response, however, we have been told by provincial representatives that the Tseshaht Emergency Preparedness crew and program [is] one of the leaders among First Nations in B.C., if not the top.
The scenario was based on the 9.0-plus megathrust earthquake that struck the “Cascadia” Zone in January 1700, causing massive ground shaking followed almost immediately by a tsunami that was recorded by scientists across the Pacific in Japan.
The exercise was held just a few weeks shy of the 70th anniversary of the Magnitude 7.3 earthquake that struck Vancouver Island at 10:15 a.m. on June 23, 1946. Braker said the damage in Port Alberni was extensive and well documented, but a fraction of what could be expected in a 9.0 megathrust.
“The estimation is that the earthquake, if it is 9.0 or above, will cause significant damage from the earthquake alone – a significant fatality/casualty toll,” Braker said. “And we figure the tsunami will come in 15 or 20 minutes later. And this tsunami, if it comes, will be larger than anything Port Alberni has seen.”
Braker said that, while the exercise scenario called for a 20-metre tsunami in Alberni Inlet – about twice the height of the Good Friday 1964 tsunami – Ocean Networks Canada estimates that a 9.0-plus megathrust earthquake could generate a peak wave between 22 to 30 metres.
“I think people are in for a bit of a surprise,” Braker said. “Add to that the probability that Vancouver Island is going to seem like it’s tipping. The scientists at Ocean Networks Canada estimate that Ucluelet is going to drop by two metres.”
While the Village of Ucluelet is situated on a hill, the nearby [[Ucluelet]] First Nation reserve, Ittatsoo, would be rendered uninhabitable due to the increased ocean height.
“Tseshaht took part in this because we recognize the damage any earthquake – not just Cascadia - would have on our people, our reserves and our infrastructure. And the tsunami would cause great devastation for us when the next one comes. We have reserves here in Port Alberni, at Polly Point and in the Broken Group.”
Every summer, Tseshaht children are taken to the Broken Group to learn their culture and take part in traditional activities. And thousands of boaters and kayakers visit the Islands every year. All of these visitors are extremely vulnerable in the event of an impending earthquake/tsunami. Currently, there is no warning system on any of the campgrounds or subdivisions along the Inlet, Braker said.
Braker said since the exercise, Tseshaht has maintained contact with Emergency Preparedness B.C., and members have undertaken ongoing training. Partly as a result, when a Magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck off the coast of Alaska on Jan. 23, Braker was one of the first people alerted.
“The earthquake struck at 1:42 a.m. I knew we had a quake within 10 minutes,” he said. “Ten minutes later, EMBC [Emergency Management B.C.] called. By then, I had already activated our crew.”
Braker immediately contacted Holly McLaughlin, who serves as director of the Emergency Operations Centre. Gena Pearson was tasked with setting up a door-to-door evacuation effort on the reserve.
“We had hundreds of people out of their homes and into safe areas before the City of Port Alberni even activated their sirens,” he said.
During the Exercise Coastal Response exercise, vulnerable infrastructure such as the Orange Bridge had been “knocked out” and both Tseshaht Market and the Tseshaht administrative office were designated evacuee centres.
McLaughlin said those lessons were put into action during the Jan. 23 tsunami alert.
“We opened up Tseshaht Market as one of the mustering stations. Hugh called us at [1:45 a.m.], and right away, and right away, our EOC opened, and Gena arranged for a community member to knock on every single door in our community to get them to higher ground.”
It was almost 3 a.m. before the sirens went off. By that time, Pearson had taken charge at Tseshaht Market and McLaughlin had set up her communications on the other side of the river, just in case a tsunami actually knocked out roads and bridges.
“We had all of our sat-(telite) phones on us and all of our equipment, just in case we got separated.”
McLaughlin said she did not actually take part in Exercise Coastal Response. But she was part of the Tseshaht emergency preparedness team that was in training at the time of the flooding that ravaged a number of Tseshaht homes in 2014.
“I arrived at the band office. There were about 20 people standing outside. And we did not know what to do,” she said. “But we had completed one training session before the flood happened. So a lot of the things that we did during that exercise, we did during the flooding: we closed down the highway; we re-directed the traffic; we evacuated all of the homes – especially our elders and persons with disabilities. And we did all the sandbagging, too.”
McLaughlin said the team put out a call for volunteers on social media, and over 200 people showed up.
“After the flooding, we had our de-briefing meeting to see what we did well and to learn from our mistakes,” she said. “And during the flooding, we were stretched to the limit, so we decided to create a second team.”
Braker said earthquakes and flooding are just two of the emergencies Tseshaht must prepare for.
Interface fires are an ever-present danger, as are toxic spills.
“We have a highway to Ucluelet/Tofino that goes through our reserve. Trucks that are loaded with oil and gasoline for the service stations and the industrial operations out on the coast come through here every day,” he said. “We also have stuff going out for the fish farms. And some of their stuff can be questionable. So our Emergency Preparedness Team has to be really good, and we have to have a really good emergency management plan.”
Braker said Tseshaht’s approach is different from government.
“We believe in taking care of our own. So, for example, we fill the sandbags; we truck the sandbags to the homes that are threatened; we put the sandbags in place; we evacuate people; we go get them out. We know exactly who lives where and what their special needs are, and we will have our staff go to the house and run through a list: ‘do you have your medications?’ That sort of thing.
“Whereas, for the government, they get a load of sand and dump it at the firehall with some bags, and they say, ‘If you need sand, come get it.’
“We don’t do it that way. We’re very much hands-on; we’re a community where people support each other. And we’ve been recognized for that.”