“We need to listen to the mice”: Earthquake Early Warning System

By Shayne Morrow, June 10, 2016
Port Alberni — 

Nuu-chah-nulth oral history was used to emphasize the need for earthquake monitoring and, better yet, prediction.

Naomi Yamamoto, minister of State for Emergency Preparedness, told Ha-Shilth-Sa the devastating mega-quake that struck the West Coast of Vancouver Island in January 1700 left behind many lessons, some of which are only now being fully understood.

“I was listening to one of the First Nation chiefs from the Nuu-chah-nulth, and he said, ‘We should have listened to the mice,’” Yamamoto said June 9 during the Exercise Coastal Response (ECR) media tour in Port Alberni.

 “The mice scurried on Jan. 26, 1700. They felt that earthquake coming. That was their early warning system. We’re going to have to use technology to do that.”

For that reason, Yamamoto said, the province has invested $5 million in the Ocean Networks system.

The undersea cable system, based in Port Alberni, contains seismic monitors along the West Coast of the Island, and the information is accessible to remote communities in the hazard zone.

Yamamoto said she concurred with Tseshaht Councillor Hugh Braker, who on Monday said earthquake vigilance and emergency preparedness was especially critical for Nuu-chah-nulth communities and people, the vast majority of whom live within three metres of sea level.

This week the ECR was a practice response to a Magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a 20-metre tsunami.

“We know that just a few seconds of [advance] warning could save thousands and thousands of lives,” the Minister said.

“Tofino, Ucluelet, they have monthly drills. Those will be invaluable if – if – something happens.”

The media tour began with lunch at Alberni Athletic Hall, provided by the Salvation Army Emergency Social Services (ESS) team.

“We have been here since the beginning,” Lt. Col. Beverley Woodland-Slous told the assembled media. There were several hundreds of people taking part in the exercise.

“We’re here to serve meals. On Day 1 (Tuesday) we served 217. On Day 2, 271. Today, we’re preparing for 320.”

The Salvation Army has a total of 14 mobile emergency kitchens in B.C. All four Vancouver Island-based units came to Port Alberni for the virtual disaster. The other 10 were in Fort McMurray for the real thing.

In her opening remarks, Yamamoto noted that ECR is “the biggest exercise anywhere” so far, and that it has been a major learning experience.

“For example, I did not know, until I became minister, that the vast majority of ESS workers are volunteers,” she observed.

Emergency accommodations were set up inside the hall. ESS Liaison Officer Angel Lou first explained that the facility was referred to as “a Group Lodging,” rather than a “shelter,” due to the stigma surrounding homeless shelters.

Once established, the lodging is subject to strict security, with each resident receiving a (fully sanitized) cot and bedding, along with a wristband.

“This is not a public building once it becomes someone’s home,” Lou explained.

Pointing to a marked section of cots that had obviously been in use, she noted, “We [ESS workers] have actually been sleeping here on these wonderful cots.”

Gerry Delorme of Emergency Management B.C. (EMBC) emphasized the long-term effects of a natural disaster.

“I don’t want you to think only about the casualties. I want you to think about the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the disaster psychosocial [effects]. You need to know what’s being done in the emergency centres to ensure that the food is safe, that people have continuity of health care,” Delorme said.

“There are things we don’t like to think about, like dead bodies in parks, and getting them back to their loved ones.”

On site was the four-piece B.C. Mobile Medical Unit (MMU), which is unique in Canada, and was purchased for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games.

The MMU has since been deployed in various roles, including providing backup capacity to B.C. hospitals under renovation.

Inside the MMU Patient Treatment unit, Minister Yamamoto examined a high-tech medical mannequin that has a pulse, chest movements and real-time vital signs on an overhead monitor.

As Yamamoto discovered, it also has a voice.

The minister was visibly startled when the patient suddenly gasped, “I can’t breathe!”

Yamamoto was asked if it was realistic to expect that, in the event of a 9.0 earthquake, whether facilities like the MMU would be deployed outside of Vancouver, where, presumably, the damage would be catastrophic.

The minister said as part of the ECR scenario, the damage in Vancouver and Victoria was “manageable,” and Port Alberni was given priority due to severe tsunami damage.

But it all gets back to that main message, Yamamoto said: Be prepared for that critical 72-hour period, during which there will be little outside help available. Set aside food, water and first aid supplies, etc., for all family members and pets.

“Your government will be there for you – but not in those critical first few days,” she said.

Yamamoto pointed out that, emergency care facilities aside, the exercise illustrated the need for infrastructure, most critically transportation infrastructure such as roads and ferries, etc., that can remain functional in the event of natural disaster.

“There’s no point in having a seismically-stable hospital if you can’t get there,” she observed.

Delorme noted that the Oct. 25 sinking of Leviathan II off Vargas Island, in which Nuu-chah-nulth vessel operators rescued survivors and reclaimed most of the victims, served as a learning experience for his agency.

While there were concerns raised about Search and Rescue capability in the region, Delorme said the existing procedures for transporting patients actually worked well, and would be refined further, with lessons learned in ECR.

Following the MMU visit, the tour group was transported to the now-vacant Gill Elementary, which was being used as a Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) training site.

At Gill, 17 community volunteers, 12 children and five parents, served as victims in several search and recovery drills.

“There are children inside and a lot of screaming,” HUSAR Search Technician Michael Fealing said.

A HUSAR reconnaissance team first combed the perimeter of the building for hazards such as live power lines or gas leaks

Behind the school, a crash scene reminiscent of an iconic 1964 Tsunami photo had been set up. A minivan perches at a 45-degree angle over a Ford SUV that was lying on its side, smashed against the side of a school bus.

Inside the minivan and the school bus, live children are screaming. Under the SUV, a pair of shoes indicates a dead victim is present.

As part of the scenario, the HUSAR team would later cut open the school bus to remove any victims unable to get out the rear exit.

Inside the school, Jake the Rescue Dog, a four-year-old Golden Retriever, demonstrates his capabilities.

HUSAR Commander Joe Morgan noted that a SAR dog is very different from a police dog, which is trained to help apprehend suspects.

“They are fabulous animals. They are looking for people in distress. People who are down, who are hidden… and they will find them,” Morgan said.

If you are on scene and you are able to walk and to remove yourself safely, Morgan explained, Jake will ignore you.

“If you are underneath something, the dog will activate. He will bark.”

The tour group followed Jake as he searched each room. When he barked, the rescue team discovered volunteer victims in various stages of distress.

Morgan noted that he himself suited up as a volunteer victim for a particularly grueling rescue exercise on the Port Alberni waterfront the previous evening, involving a bus rollover into the water, complicated by floating logs.

“Yesterday I had a 2X4 sticking out of my stomach and out through my back,” he chuckled. “I was airlifted out by a Coast Guard helicopter.”

Back outside the school, the group was interrupted by the whine of a small surveillance drone, hovering overhead, transmitting real-time video of the school building back to its base. Morgan said the drone belongs to the RCMP.

“We called the RCMP for assistance,” he explained. “If one person can fly over the building, rather than having five people walk around it, we can save a lot of time.”

Prior to leaving, Yamamoto thanked the HUSAR team and volunteers, acknowledging the time and effort ECR had involved.

“We can’t do something like this every year; we wouldn’t get anything else done,” she said. “But every three to five years would be a good idea.”