11/08/2012 12:43 EST | Updated 01/07/2013 05:12 EST

How B.C. Zoned Out On The Tsunami Warning

Kitimat, B.C. and New York had one thing in common this week: the misuse and use of social media, Twitter and Facebook that spread both accurate warnings and dangerous misinformation about an impending disaster.


Kitimat, B.C. and New York had one thing in common this week: the misuse and use of social media, Twitter and Facebook that spread both accurate warnings and dangerous misinformation about an impending disaster. In the case of New York and the surrounding area, it was Superstorm Sandy that caused widespread devastation. For Kitimat it was the tsunami warning after the 7.7 earthquake off Haida Gwaii that brought no damage but a lot of worry for residents.

It has been documented that there was no official response from Emergency Management British Columbia (still largely known under its former name Provincial Emergency Program) until an hour after the first earthquake report from the U.S. Geological Survey. Only sometime later did B.C.'s provincial emergency officials hold a short conference call with reporters.

So in that hour of silence from the B.C. government, one question has to be raised: Were the tsunami warnings so completely uncoordinated -- at least as far as the public is concerned -- that that was one cause of the misinformation and inaccurate information on Twitter and Facebook? Or did confusing information from authorities simply compound and amplify the social media misinformation that was already spreading?

As Kitimat's emergency plan co-ordinator, Bob McLeod, told an earthquake post mortem on Oct. 29:

"There was one case where someone was going around banging on doors in Kildala, telling them to get out. I think it was over when he was in the lockup that night. But this is the type of foolishness that goes on. You have people going on Facebook saying 'Alcan's been evacuated. They're evacuating Kildala.' I am going to be generous and say it is misinformation... It was a blatant lie. And that does not help."

Kitimat Daily reporter Walter McFarlane told the meeting:

"I found the night of the earthquake that no information is just as bad as wrong information. People were calling me on my cell saying, 'Why does the Kitimat Daily say we have to evacuate.' That is because the Daily republished a warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre that said 'Tsunami warning, evacuation for the North Coast.' People were saying we're on the north coast, we got to go."

When I got to my home office, my only source of information at that point was Google News, Facebook and Twitter.

I saw the initial warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Soon I was getting what I hoped was more specific information on my marine radio from the Canadian Coast Guard Prince Rupert communications station.

The Coast Guard advisory mentioned various zones, for example, Zone A and Zone B, but there was little specific context and that point I had no idea what Zone A meant. Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio then went on to say evacuate low-lying coastal areas.

With that confusion, and mindful of "when in doubt, leave it out," I did not mention the zone system in any information I posted on Facebook and Twitter that night. I only retweeted official information or tweets from reporters I trusted. (I did not see any tweeted information from the province with a link to the page that identifies the official tsunami zones.)

In Kitimat, I was told about the man going door to door with inaccurate information and as soon as I confirmed it with reliable official sources, I posted that on both Twitter and Facebook, emphasizing there was, at that time, no evacuation order.

Twitter misinformation spread internationally. The first hashtag I saw was #bcquake, but as the tsunami warning gained traction -- especially after the warning was extended from B.C. and Alaska to Washington, Oregon and California and then to Hawaii -- the more common hashtag #tsunami became prominent.

As people outside B.C. began tweeting, they began using #Canadaquake and soon #PrayForCanada also began to trend. Completely inaccurate information spread on #PrayForCanada (believed to have originated in Indonesia) that it was Vancouver, not the North Coast that had been hit by the 7.7 magnitude earthquake.


Just how were people going to interpret such general terms as "North Coast" and "low-lying areas?"

From the Emergency Management BC/Provincial Emergency Program you have to ask "What is Zone A?" It turns out by checking a day or so later, that the province of British Columbia has created Tsunami Identification Zones.

Before Oct. 27, it is likely no one outside of the provincial bureaucracy had ever heard of the provincial tsunami zones. Later on, the TV networks put up maps showing Zones A and B -- but that was only good if you had power and were watching the right channel. It was no good at all if you were listening to news reports on radio or to Prince Rupert Coast Guard Radio on a fishing boat and had no access to the actual maps.

Compounding the confusion is that the U.S. system appears to be very different from the Canadian.

The U.S. system has two levels of warning. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center sends out general warnings but hands over for a more specific warning map from the Alaska based West Coast and Alaska Pacific Tsunami warning centre. It uses its own system of lettered and numbered zones for the west coast of North America. (See the Oct. 27 tsunami advisory here - Note it is a Google maps plugin.)

Possibly adding to uncertainty for those who sail the coast of British Columbia, is that usually when the Coast Guard talks about zones on marine radio, it is talking about the fishing zones as defined by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which are numbered not lettered.

So in case of a tsunami warning, Kitimat is in Zone B for the province of B.C. and the Provincial Emergency Program and in Zone BZ921 for the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre. For the much more familiar fisheries management areas, Kitimat is in Zone 6.

If a conclusion can be drawn from the earthquake and tsunami warning in the Kitimat region on Oct. 27, it's not just that inaccurate, incomplete or malicious information can spread at the speed of light on social media during an emergency, it's worse that incomplete, inadequate and confusing information from the authorities is amplified and distorted by rapid posting on social media.

For a longer version of this story and transcripts of the tsunami warnings, you can visit Northwest Coast Energy News.