Port Alberni evacuation offers valuable lessons for coastal communities

Port Alberni, B.C., a small coastal community on Vancouver Island, evacuated its residents on Jan. 23, 2018, following a tsunami warning triggered by a massive earthquake off the coast of Alaska.

Warning tower

Warning tower in Port Alberni, B.C. Credit: Ryan Reynolds/UBC

Port Alberni, B.C., a small coastal community on Vancouver Island, evacuated its residents on Jan. 23, 2018, following a tsunami warning triggered by a massive earthquake off the coast of Alaska.

Although the tsunami didn’t happen, the evacuation provides crucial insights into how residents respond during a mass evacuation, according to UBC researchers Ryan Reynolds and Alexa Tanner, who say the information can be used to improve community emergency response plans.

Ryan Reynolds
Ryan Reynolds

In this Q&A, Reynolds, a postdoctoral researcher in UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning, explains what went right, what could have been done better, and what lessons the evacuation offers for coastal communities across Canada.

What did you find in your research?

We surveyed more than 450 residents through both door-to-door and online surveys and interviewed 11 emergency planning and management officials with the City of Port Alberni and Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District.

There are six tsunami warning broadcast “towers” located in the Alberni Valley inundation zone and they appear to have done the job well. We found that 93 per cent of households located within the inundation zone had successfully left the area by the time the evacuation alert ended an hour later. Most households sought shelter in the homes of friends and family, with only a few traveling to the official reception centre.

But there were a few issues. Many people jumped in their cars to reach higher ground, causing some traffic congestion, and the reception centre was not ready to receive evacuees until nearly an hour after evacuation began. The most important challenge was that 10 per cent of participants were unsure if their homes were located within the inundation zone, and another eight per cent were mistaken in their beliefs about their home’s location.

Issues around online communication were also raised. Many people searched for information on the city’s online channels to validate the warning siren, but these channels were largely silent.

However, the fact that no tsunami materialized did not appear to have significantly impacted public trust in officials, with 89 per cent of participants saying they were equally or more likely to evacuate in the event of a future tsunami warning. Eighty-six per cent of participants believed the decision to evacuate was the correct choice, given the information available to officials at the time.

What can coastal communities at risk of natural disasters learn from this experience?

No emergency response is entirely flawless and there are always lessons to be learned. Officials with the City of Port Alberni and the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional district have already made improvements to their emergency response plans.

Our report recommends that communities strive to make risk-related communications an integral part of their emergency planning. This means providing clear and regular communication about local hazards to the public and ensuring all communication channels are activated during times of emergency. Public risk maps should clearly describe which areas of the community are at risk, using easily identified landmarks. Reducing the information-seeking residents need to do during an emergency is critical. Strong communications during an emergency can help to strengthen trust in officials, while poor communications can quickly erode at that trust.

MEDIA: Click here to download the report “What’s that Sound? Public & Official Perceptions of the January 2018 Tsunami Warning and Evacuation in the Alberni Valley.”