This map shows the three areas of Saanich, which a tsunami would most likely affect. District of Saanich

Tsunami warning after earthquake rattles Saanich residents

Scenes straight out of a disaster movie unfolded across Saanich Tuesday morning after an earthquake in Alaska triggered a tsunami warning for coastal B.C.

Saanich Police walked through parts of the Cadboro Bay neighbourhood, knocking on doors of homes on Waring Place, Hibbens Close, Mystic and Killarney near Cadboro-Gyro Park, and telling residents to leave.

Volunteers readied a reception centre at Gordon Head Recreation Centre on Lambrick Way.

Columns of cars, their lights cutting the early morning darkness, climbed up Mount Tolmie in searching for safety from the waves that never came.

Areas of Saanich most susceptible to the effects of a tsunami include Cadboro Bay, Cordova Bay, and Portage Inlet, according to a Saanich map.

Others, meanwhile, slept right through it all, yet no less fearful of what could have been, with many concerned about the absence of information.

It all started Tuesday morning when an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 on the Richter scale struck almost 300 kilometres southeast of Kodiak in the Gulf of Alaska at a depth of about 10 kilometres at 1:30 a.m. This triggered a tsunami warning for not only Alaska but also coastal British Columbia.

A tsunami warning is the highest of five alert levels. Once provincial authorities relayed the warning, local officials sprung into action.

Meg Catalano, a spokesperson for the District of Saanich, said residents of 10 Saanich homes were evacuated.

“We had approximately 30 people attend the [Gordon Head Community Centre], some of whom would have self-evacuated,” she said.

Officials also evacuated 30 homes in Colwood.

The alert was cancelled around 4:35 a.m., some three hours after the quake, and about two-and-a-half hours after the warning was first issued just after 2 a.m.

But if this sequence sounds straight forward, Saanich residents experienced Tuesday morning in a vast variety of ways.

Jeremy Mannall-Fretwell told the Saanich News in an email he found out about the alert through a series of phone calls.

“I was woken by a phone call from my mother who lives on Salt Spring,” he said. “She was woken by a phone call from my sister — in Switzerland. Upon checking my phone, I found no text alert, and had to turn on CBC Newsworld for more information. I contrast this to an incident when I was in Florida last March and received a text alert (on my Canadian cell phone) about the imminent landfall of a waterspout/tornado in the neighbourhood I was staying in. I am relatively surprised that something similar didn’t happen here.”

Sara Stevens said on the Saanich News’ Facebook page that a friend of her husband called from Prince Rupert to alert them. Otherwise, she would have missed it.

While Stevens had signed up signed up for Vic-Alert, the City of Victoria’s alert system, she turned off her ringer, as she does every night. “So I slept through the text,” she said. “Would have never known if we didn’t get a call from our friend.”

Georgina Parsons said on Saanich News’ Facebook page that she — like so many — was in a state of uncertainty, spending her morning on social media to get updates.

“As far as me being prepared, I don’t have a car so no chance in me walking anywhere,” she said. “I just grabbed the dog, his food [and] water, and charged all my devices in my bedroom upstairs and hoped for the best.”

Others were more critical. “We did not get any warnings from emergency teams, fire department or Saanich police,” said Marie Bachand, on the Saanich News Facebook page. “We live on Vista Bay Road, which is in Cadboro Bay. Was this not an area that might be affected by a tsunami? We would at the very least like to understand our situation with regards to an emergency such as this. Thanks.”

Saanich residents can follow Saanich Emergency Program on Twitter @SaanichEP, but it appears to lack a text alert system similar to the system in Victoria or Sidney.

Not surprisingly, several Saanich News readers contacted for comment said they had signed up for Vic-Alert.

Others, meanwhile, did not hear about the earthquake or the alert, until contacted by the Saanich News, and provincial officials have already faced questions about the apparent absence of a region-wide warning systems.

In the end, things could have turned out far worse. Police stopped knocking on doors soon after they had started. The 24-hour news cycle, social media, and personal contacts served as adequate, if not always reliable, substitutes for a regional alert system. Most communities in the Greater Victoria region did not evacuate residents.

It is also important to note that high, rocky topography protects most of the District, according to what Garry Rogers, a seismologist at the Natural Resources in Sidney, said in a 2015 Saanich News article about the District’s most susceptible areas in the tsunami.

But an eerie feeling of what could have been nonetheless remains.

Saanich resident Megan Klammer perhaps sum it up the best.

“I heard about it on the radio at 8 a.m. on my commute in,” she said. “Now I’m scared that I’m out of the loop.”

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