The one thing that could save Tofino

The Big One will kill 1,850 if it hits Tofino at the height of summer. The only thing that can stop it is getting ignored. 

By Daren Zomerman
September 26, 2020

The one thing that could save Tofino

The Big One will kill 1,850 if it hits Tofino at the height of summer. The only thing that can stop it is getting ignored. 

By Daren Zomerman
Sep 26, 2020
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt

The one thing that could save Tofino

The Big One will kill 1,850 if it hits Tofino at the height of summer. The only thing that can stop it is getting ignored. 

By Daren Zomerman
September 26, 2020
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The one thing that could save Tofino
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt

Just after midnight on January 23, 2018, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Alaska. It was no Big One, but it was nothing to sniff at: Haiti had been levelled by less in 2010, and it only took a 6.7 magnitude earthquake in 1994 to do $50 billion of damage to Los Angeles.

Environment Canada issued an evacuation alert for the entire BC coastline, prompting an estimated 600 Tofino residents and tourists—sitting cross legged shoulder-to-shoulder dressed in their full winter outfits—to jam into the community’s 300-person-capacity community centre seeking refuge. 

But the disaster never came: Fortunately, this earthquake didn’t produce a tsunami, but the event made it clear Tofino was not prepared for its most existential threat. Residents hadn’t heard the district’s beach sirens and didn’t receive the cellular notifications they had signed up for through Tofino’s emergency alert provider, One Call Now. If this had been a real emergency, hundreds of residents wouldn't have had a chance.

Tofino stands virtually alone in the club of Canadian communities that are guaranteed to be significantly destroyed by natural disaster. A megathrust earthquake will be devastating to the likes of Victoria or Vancouver, but it’s only in Tofino where the knock-on effects of a tsunami threaten to utterly flatten most of the town and kill a significant share of its population. There is an innovative way this tragedy could be prevented. But if being blindsided by COVID-19 has taught BC anything, it’s that we may have a habit of ignoring disaster preparedness until it’s too late. 

The Cascadia Subduction Zone—the coming-together of two major continental plates—lies just 100 kilometres off the Vancouver Island coast. Expert modelling predicts a 21% chance of a full rupture in the next 50 years, prompting an earthquake that, at its worst, would be one of the most powerful in recorded history. 

Tofino, unlike BC and Washington State communities sheltered within the Salish Sea, faces not only the earthquake, but the full brunt of any tsunami that is to follow. According to modelling done in 2018 by Northwest Hydrological Solutions (NHC), a Big One-level earthquake would cause large parts of Chesterman Beach, Middle Beach, and Mackenzie Beach to be inundated with water levels 1.5 times higher than the average two-storey home. By a rough count, approximately 40% of all Tofino tourist accommodation is in this danger zone.

Should the tsunami hit when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in the community for his annual surfing vacation, his usual accommodation on Cox Bay would be smack dab in the middle of the hardest-to-escape area.    

Added to that is a number of factors crippling any possible emergency response. The sparsely populated region has only a single highway in and out, surrounded by lakes and beaches. This critical roadway routinely washes out because of industrial accidents, collapsing infrastructure, and natural hazards, cutting off both Tofino’s and neighbouring Ucluelet’s supply of food and medicine. As well, the high ground nearby is made up of rocky cliffs and dense forests with few marked trails. And while the community has a hospital, it only has a 10-bed capacity which often serves as a homeless shelter. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the community pleaded with travellers to stay out of Tofino, knowing that if the disease spread through the community, they wouldn’t be able to properly treat it. 

Crews remove debris after a rock blasting mishap closed Highway 4 in July, 2019, temporarily cutting off Tofino from the rest of Vancouver Island. It's highly likely that similar road closures in the wake of a major earthquake would hinder recovery efforts (BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure).

If the tsunami struck during the day, 30% of Tofino’s estimated 4,500-strong summer beach population wouldn’t be able to escape in time, according to the Northwest Hydrological Solutions report. At night, that figure rises up to 75%. By either measure, Tofino is set to become the site of one of the deadliest single disasters in Canadian history, rivalled only the 1917 Halifax Explosion.

And there’s reason to believe these estimates are overly conservative: Tofino’s models assume evacuees will have 35 minutes to escape, while other sources suggest the waves will hit the beaches only 15 minutes after the quake ends. Exact population statistics during the high summer season are not well documented, and the road map report also didn’t account for the high potential of overcrowding at evacuation sites, which could leave would-be survivors left to fend for themselves at unsafe elevations. 

Tofino has evacuation-route signage and many community preparedness events. After the fiasco of the 2018 alert, Tofino has also changed its notification service provider, added a new siren, and increased the number of community drills. But none of that will save the lives of up to 1850 tourists and residents who would be living near Chesterman Beach and Cox Beach should the tsunami strike at the height of tourist season. 

Detail from Tofino's current tsunami evacuation map. The areas shaded in brown are deemed to be deadly in case of tsunami (Source).

The District recently released the Tsunami-Smart Road Map, which lays out eight projects Tofino plans to undertake, at a cost of $5.2 million, to better protect the community. They include providing weather radios and training for local tour guides, improving the early warning systems and evacuation routes, and establishing high-ground assembly locations on private property. These measures are helpful, but they cannot account for the fact that for Tofino residents living in low-lying areas, there is not enough time to evacuate to high ground after an alert is sounded. 

If a person was caught surfing on Chesterman Beach when a full Big One-level earthquake happens, they’d have exactly 15 minutes to make it to high ground. In Tofino’s current state, if they’re on the north section of the beach they’d have a 1.5 kilometer journey to the closest high ground location at Ocean Park Drive (conveniently located next to Tacofino). If there’s no damage to the roads, homes, or pathways they’d have a 19 minute walk. If they’re on the south end, near Heron’s Perch, that time jumps to a deadly 26 minutes.

A study published in the journal Natural Hazards in 2018 used computer modelling to evaluate the time it would take to evacuate Tofino's tsunami hazard zones. Considering the coarseness of Tofino’s landscape, evacuating even in optimal conditions would be difficult, but at night when obstacles are harder to see, and people have to escape crumbled homes or attend to injured loved ones, it might be impossible, the report said. The study’s author, water specialist Isabelle Cheff, reported that the majority of people around Chesterman Beach, Cox Bay, and Mackenzie Beach would require more than 20 minutes to escape. Chesterman Beach was by far the worst, with some places requiring 29 minutes longer to escape than they have available. 

To definitively fix that problem, there is only one surefire measure on the table: a tsunami vertical evacuation tower. Although unknown in Canada, these kinds of structures have been gaining popularity all across the Pacific Rim. Japan has been building them across its vulnerable coastline since 1982. A 2012 study concluded that 37 towers in the Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, two provinces north of Tokyo, saved 5,428 people during the 2011 tsunami that killed between 17,000 and 20,000. Washington State now counts two of the structures. 

A vertical evacuation tower, or TVE, is essentially a reverse bomb shelter. Where bomb shelters provide space for masses of people to shelter underground, a vertical evacuation tower provides space for people to shelter in the air, well above the high-water-mark of any tsunami. In Japan, these shelters have sometimes been built into existing, multi-purpose infrastructure like schools, community centres, or libraries. However, the simplest, most utilitarian structures are simply platforms built on metal beams piled deep into bedrock. 

Satellite image of Japan's Kesennuma City, a coatal community devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Highlighted are the locations of nine vertical evacuation towers that collectively saved more than 2,000 people (Source).

In some coastal Japanese cities, these towers were the only structures that remained after the 2011 Tsunami tore apart entire communities.

Tofino’s Tsunami-Smart Road Map includes plans for a utilitarian TVE capable of holding up to 2,600 people, but it’s deemed a low priority. “This measure was identified as a low priority through the consultation process. While a TVE is a key component of life safety in hard-to-evacuate areas, it is expensive and can only service a small area. TVEs should be implemented as a long-term project with a holistic plan for evacuation and life safety in Tofino,” the document says.

The Road Map calls for the life-saving structure to be built either just off Lyn Road — nestled in behind hotels, short-term rentals, vacation homes, and B&Bs — or near Cox Bay.

The first vertical evacuation tower in North America. Built in Greys Harbor County, Washington State, it is a fortified gymnasium of an elementary school permitting public evacuation to the roof (Source).

Because the $4.6 million tower would eat up 91% of the district’s 2020 budget, however, the community will have no means to build it without federal or provincial grant money. 

Unfortunately, Canada doesn’t have funding options to fund vertical evacuation towers. The country has the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund which splits costs 50/50 with the provinces, but it’s only designed for projects that have a price tag above $20 million. And other funding streams for small communities are either fully booked with projects, or only target traditional needs such as water and roads.

If Tofino found a feasible funding stream, they would likely have to split the costs equally with the provincial and federal governments. In that case, it would cost the municipality $1.53 million, representing more than 29% of their 2020 operating budget. In BC, however, it’s not possible for a municipality to incur debt greater than 25% of their revenue, meaning a project of this magnitude for a small community is dead in the water without some kind of provincial intervention. 

One way around this is a public/private partnership, where a business entity or person would help fund the project for philanthropic or revenue generation purposes. The District of Tofino released a public survey in October 2019 which mentioned the vertical evacuation tower and noted that as a result of such a partnership the District of Tofino would only have to pay $500,000. However, in an interview with Capital Daily in March, Mayor Josie Osborne said she did not know any details about the public-private partnership. She has not responded to multiple requests for comment since, and is now running as the BC NDP candidate in the riding of Mid Island-Pacific Rim.

A rendering of a possible vertical evacuation tower for Tofino (Source).

Under the best-case scenario, assuming all planning, reporting, consultations, and funding applications are completed successfully in the earliest possible timeline, the community would see the two-year construction project start in 2026. But even if all goes well and the tower ends up getting built, the effort still might not be enough to ensure that all people on the beaches, including those with mobility impairments, would be able to survive a full rupture of the Cascadia Subduction Zone. For that to happen, the 2018 study by Isabelle Cheff says the community would need two towers. And even then, there’s no scenario that would save the up to seven people who regularly stay at one of two accommodations on Frank Island, a scenic, hidden location just off Chesterman Beach that is only accessible by foot at low tide.

Tofino’s own modelling came to a similar prediction. The 2018 NHC report says that in daylight the average person under 65 would be able to run just under 1.8 kilometres before the tsunami reached the shoreline. During the night, the distance would drop to just 535 metres. 

Detail from the  Northwest Hydrological Solutions report. While the areas shown in green could feasibly evacuate to high ground in the event of a tsunami, the areas shown in red show where residents would most likely be trapped without an evacuation tower.

Both distances fall well short of what would be required to get to safety for beachside residents in a towerless Tofino. And even with a tower, if it is built on Lyn Road, people residing on Cox Bay would have to travel 3.8 km to get there. The only hope for them might be a small patch of high ground between Chesterman Beach and Cox Bay. But that land, called Rosie Bay, is privately owned, which could make building accessible routes to it difficult. 

Mayor Josie Osborne said back in March council has increased its commitment to tsunami preparedness over the last five years. Since 2017, the district has received just over $420,000 in grants for flood mapping, emergency social services, and emergency operations centres training, among other precuation. Most of the up to $5.2 million in costs projected in the Tsunami Smart Road Map are designated to come from federal and provincial grants. The report also claims some of the funding will come from local businesses, non-profits, and philanthropic support.

But even if Tofino gets the funding to put every Road Map project in place, Tofino will remain a high-risk location without the means to actually get its low-lying areas away from a tsunami. On its website, a disclaimer notes that even though the community has sirens, radios, and emergency alerts ready to go, there’s no guarantee there will be enough time to set them off during an emergency like a full rupture of the Cascadia Subduction Zone. 

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