Ucluelet mayor Dianne St. Jacques speaks to evacuated residents inside Ucluelet Secondary School’s gym. (Photo - Andrew Bailey)

Ucluelet mayor Dianne St. Jacques speaks to evacuated residents inside Ucluelet Secondary School’s gym. (Photo - Andrew Bailey)

Tsunami evacuations offer learning opportunities in Tofino and Ucluelet

“If you’re a resident downtown, you shouldn’t be relying on the sirens.”

A Tsunami Warning evacuated the West Coast from their homes and hotel rooms last week and local leaders hope the event spurs an increased interest in emergency preparedness.

The evacuation occurred around 2 a.m. Tuesday morning and the warning was cancelled at roughly 4:45 a.m.

Tofino’s municipal council met at 10 a.m. that morning and mayor Josie Osborne said she was “really proud” of the way Tofino’s first responders handled the event, but locals must prepare themselves.

“Today. Not tomorrow. Not next week and not next month. Today is the day to go home and have the conversation with your family and with your friends about what took place this morning and what you learned from it,” she said. “What you felt you would do different next time and what you could take away to be even more prepared for the next event that will happen. It’s not “if” it happens; it will happen.”

Tofino’s manager of community sustainability Aaron Rodgers told the Westerly News the district has highlighted several key areas to improve.

“In the end we think we did a good job, probably a B or B-plus. But, I think, there is a lot of room for improvement and we’ve had a number of debriefings internally,” he said. “We’ve already turned in some recommendations for where the gaps are for us and what we can do better.”

Tofino activated its three tsunami sirens around 2:20 a.m but, many locals took to social media to state they had not heard them. Rodgers said the sirens depend on the weather to be heard and added they are intended to warn people on beaches.

“They are intended to get people off the beach. That is their primary purpose,” he said. “If you’re a resident downtown, you shouldn’t be relying on the sirens.”

Tofino’s first two sirens cost $80,000 each, but the third came in under budget at $62,000 thanks, in part, to a wooden pole instead of an engineered steel one.

Rodgers said a fourth siren would likely be installed at Mackenzie Beach or in the downtown area within the next three years.

He said locals should sign up for the district’s One-Call emergency notification system and added that district is looking at improving that system and will begin testing it monthly.

“The district is talking about developing a better protocol for house to house notification,” he said.

Tofino police and firefighters were set up to direct traffic and keep the community hall orderly, but Rodgers said Tofino is also looking into setting up an agreement with first responders to go door-to-door in an emergency, similar to what happened in Ucluelet.

“One of our takeaways is just to explore that a little bit further and hopefully develop another method of reaching people in the middle of the night,” he said.

Ucluelet Mayor Dianne St. Jacques said the door-to-door notifications were crucial and effective.

“I was just amazed at the speed and the efficiency of the whole thing,” she said. “Those guys were awesome. “

She said Ucluelet is soliciting feedback from community members about what they feel needs improvement and anyone who wants to share their story is encouraged to reach out to info@ucluelet.ca.

“We’re looking for input from community members. Constructive criticism or things that worked for them and things that didn’t from the household perspective,” she said. “It helps us fill in the gaps and do a better job.”

St. Jacques said some key takeaways for Ucluelet were the need for a new, louder, tsunami siren and better communication protocols.

“We definitely need to work at the communication. The more we can get out there faster to people, the more property and lives we can save in the event of a catastrophic quake or tsunami,” she said. “We need to set aside some funding or raise funding somehow definitely for a new siren…We need to get a louder siren that can be heard more clearly throughout the community.”

She added she was disappointed by the lack of communication coming from the province during the event.

“We need to look into that and see what happened there because that really helps us with informing the public and the steps that we take,” she said. “We definitely want to work with the province on these things. We’re all in it together when this kind of stuff happens.”

She added cell phone alerts would only work if cell towers are still standing after an event and encourages neighbourhoods to get together and organize a plan.

“There’s strength in numbers when a big event happens. If we were to have a really big one, the people around you are the ones you’re going to be counting on in the very short term,” she said. “Have a meeting place on your block and account for each other.”

She added locals are also welcoming anyone interested in joining the local emergency social services team to sign up by emailing.

“If people are willing to volunteer, this would be a great time to assist the folks that have been at it for quite some time,” she said. “We need some new and more energy in that group because everybody works hard all the time and we always need backup.”