A tsunami warning for the B.C. coast was cancelled Tuesday morning after many people evacuated to higher ground when a powerful earthquake struck off the coast of Alaska.
Environment Canada issued a tsunami warning after the 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck 281 kilometres south-east of Kodiak City, Alaska at a depth of about 25 kilometres. The quake happened at around 1:30 a.m. Pacific time.
Patricia Leidl, communications director with Emergency Preparedness BC, said there was a three-centimetre wave and a 15-centimetre rise in sea level hours after the quake at Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
“I think this exercise demonstrates that tsunami warning systems do work and, just to reiterate, that it’s absolutely critical that those living in vulnerable and coastal areas do respond to these warnings and listen to their local officials should such an event occur,” she said.
The tsunami warning covered the Juan de Fuca Strait coast, the outer west coast of Vancouver Island, the central coast and northeast Vancouver Island, and the north coast and Haida Gwaii. People were told to evacuate inland or to higher ground, or move to an upper floor of a multi-story building, depending on individual situations.
The first wave was expected to hit Tofino at 4:40 a.m., Patricia Leidl from Emergency Management B.C. says it was only a few centimetres tall when it arrived around that time.
Dan Banks, a public works employee in Tofino, said residents in low-lying areas, including resorts on along the beach, were told to go to higher ground.
“It’s tsunami protocol, everybody is going to high ground and evacuating the low-areas like they are supposed to,” he said, adding people also gathered at a community hall.
The City of Victoria advised those who lived by the coast to move two blocks inland. The city did say on Tuesday on Tuesday afternoon that they made a mistake by only sending text and email alerts to mobile phones, while voice calls went to landlines for this morning’s alert. The city says in the future, they will send out alerts via text, email and phone calls to all phones assuming it is warranted.
Emergency Management B.C. asked the public to minimize phone use in affected areas during the incident.
Gillian Der, a University of British Columbia geography student who is studying in Queen Charlotte on Haida Gwaii, said she didn’t feel the earthquake.
“I just heard the fire trucks going around, honking their horns and on the loudspeaker saying there is a tsunami warning. It was very apocalyptic. So I was just running up the street to the muster station, up the big hill.”
Earth sciences Prof. Brent Ward of Simon Fraser University said the quake was a strike-slip earthquake, where the plates slip sideways past each other.
“To get a tsunami, you have to have vertical movement of the sea floor and that more often occurs in what we call a thrust fault, usually in a subduction zone, where one of the plates is moving over top of the other.”
Ward said when a plate moves up very quickly, that displaces the water above it, setting off a tsunami.
“It looks as though this earthquake was triggered on what we would call a transcurrent fault in the oceanic plate that is going underneath North America,” he said.
The U.S. Geological Survey said dozens of aftershocks have been recorded ranging in magnitude from 3.3 to 6.9.
The last devastating tsunami to hit B.C. was 54 years ago in Port Alberni after a 9.2 earthquake off Alaska. Two waves gathered force as they raced up the funnel-like Alberni Inlet in March 1964, hitting the city with forces that swept away houses and vehicles, but caused no deaths.
Scientists in Japan, and Vancouver Island First Nations, have gathered accounts of a huge earthquake and tsunami in January 1700 that wiped out communities and killed thousands of people. A wave the height of a four-storey building hit the east coast of Japan nine hours after the original earthquake off the B.C. coast.
People in Alaska received warnings Tuesday from the National Weather Service sent to cellphones that said: “Emergency Alert. Tsunami danger on the coast. Go to high ground or move inland.”
The fire chief of a city in Alaska popular with cruise ships said there was no panic as residents reacted to the tsunami warning.
Seward fire Chief Eddie Athey praised his community for doing “the right thing,” calling it “a controlled evacuation” as people left for higher ground or drove along the only road out of the city.
Athey told the Associated Press the quake was gentle, and that it “felt like the washer was off balance.”
The quake lasted for up to 90 seconds, long enough that he thought, “Boy, I hope this stops soon because it’s just getting worse.”
The Alaska Earthquake Information Center said the quake was felt widely in several communities on the Kenai Peninsula and throughout southern Alaska, but it also had no immediate reports of damage. People reported on social media that the quake was felt hundreds of kilometres away, in Anchorage.
Good to see more and more people here at @TofinoEmergency muster centre. Goal is 100% of town AND GUESTS. Spread the word and follow the evacuation routes, first wave is due at 03:40! #Tofino #Tsunami pic.twitter.com/fTcF03KsNA
— Catherine Lempke (@Cat_Lempke) January 23, 2018
With files from Terri Theodore and Beth Leighton, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press