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Info slow getting here

Parksville city councillor tells her tale of panic over October quake

Minutes count in an emergency.

Parksville councillor Carrie Powell-Davidson is raising concerns over the lack of information from provincial emergency co-ordinators after recent earthquakes, and the very personal way it affected her.

There was an earthquake off the coast of Haida Gwaii on October 27 of last year at 8:04 p.m.

Powell-Davidson said she didn't feel the quake, but about 10 minutes later her daughter, working as a paramedic in Gold River, called to tell her about it.

"I immediately went to the television to try to find information, obviously concerned about my daughter," Powell-Davison said Monday at a city council meeting. "At 8:35 she phoned me again and told me they were in the process of evacuating the town and suddenly her phone went dead."

For two hours, Powell-Davidson said she was on the verge of panic as she struggled to find concrete information, checking the Internet and eventually calling Parksville emergency representatives, only to find they were just as frustrated, and dealing with the same lack of information.

While the West Coast Alaska Warning Centre issued the first bulletins within eight minutes and an official warning soon after, Emergency Management B.C. (EMBC), who local emergency services follow, did not issue a warning for another 39 minutes.

The small tsunami passed with little or no damage, but Powell-Davidson points out that in itself was important information.

"Then I took my mom hat off and put on my council hat and thought, this isn't right," she later explained to The NEWS.

"EMBC initiated their warning system and Parksville received notification 71 minutes after the earthquake. A few days later, EMBC released a letter reminding local governments to ensure they have done their part to prepare for an emergency or disaster. The letter tries to justify the provincial response," she told council, clearly frustrated.

Mid-Island emergency co-ordinators and managers, including Parksville's emergency co-ordinator Aaron Dawson and the fire chief, met with the EMBC regional manager a few days later and "made it clear to EMBC that earlier notification to local governments was required in order to have time to make local decisions regarding public safety," Powell Davidson said.

As it happened another earthquake struck off Alaska on Jan. 5 and local emergency representatives were eager to see improvements, but they were not impressed.

Powell-Davidson said the earthquake struck at 12:58 a.m. and Parksville staff received a tsunami warning at 2:17 a.m.

"In order to best serve the community we need timely information," said Dawson choosing his words carefully. "When the information is delayed like that, we consider it a safety hazard."

Another meeting was held with EMBC and Powell-Davidson said "they advised they did not have money to fix an old notification system and they have other priorities," but they said they'd look into it.

Speaking to The NEWS Wednesday morning after an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in the South Pacific, Dawson suggested EMBC is best designed for events like that where they have many hours to get tsunami warnings out.

He was quick to say they have a good relationship with their provincial counterparts, but he doesn't believe they have the resources to do what they need to do, explaining it is not a problem of getting the initial information, but how it is processed and re-distributed through official channels.

"We have asked them to send the information before analyzing it, then update it as needed," Dawson said. "Wake us up and let us be part of the process, let us start our local process."

"Given that we live in an earthquake-prone area, this response by the province is completely unacceptable," Powell-Davidson said. She  presented council with a motion to send to the Vancouver Island Association of Coastal Communities and the Union of B.C. Municipalities, asking the provincial government "to demonstrate a commitment to the safety of B.C. coastal communities by providing the necessary resources to EMBC."

Mayor Chris Burger highlighted the irony that there are unofficial free applications for smart phones that warn people, but the government can't afford to co-ordinate an official system.

"This is a good notification that something's not working," he concluded.

Council passed the motion unanimously with no discussion.