When B.C. gets hit
Chances that a massive earthquake and tsunami will devastate the Lower Mainland are frighteningly high. Consider this a wake-up call.
KEN MacQUEEN | May 16, 2005
When the inevitable hits British Columbia, expect a final, fleeting moment of denial. Perhaps a big truck is going by, or a construction crew is digging a foundation, or this is just a dizzy spell. But the ground keeps moving and the air fills with dust and there is the sound of breaking glass and falling objects, and the groaning protest of a building that was never meant to dance. There will be an irrational urge to flee, but where? Maybe there is enough wherewithal to dive under a desk or a table or to brace in a doorway -- and to think of that damned earthquake kit that never got assembled. Is that the smell of gas? My God, where are the kids?
If you are lucky, and this is Vancouver, you will eventually stumble outside when the shaking finally stops, to a city changed beyond recognition. People will band together. Some will do stupid things, clustering sheeplike at the bases of downtown office towers, waiting to be shredded by showers of glass at the first aftershock. But unlikely leaders will emerge and there will be extraordinary acts of bravery, as there always are. People will be pried from wrecked automobiles and shattered buildings. People will converge at St. Paul's Hospital in the West End; not for treatment but to pull patients and staff from its red brick rubble. There may be frantic rescue efforts at the ruins of the Main Street police station -- likely to fail residents of the Downtown Eastside when they need help most -- and at too many schools(more than 300 in the province are considered at high risk). Where are the kids? Pray they're not in class.
By now the fires will have started, fed by leaking gas and sparked by downed wires and flaming transformers thrown to the ground as fragile wooden poles snap or topple into buildings, like giant, blazing torches. People will rage at the lack of firefighters on Vancouver streets for what seems like an eternity. But this is the Big One and firefighters are under orders to stay at their stations for the first hour, until damage assessments roll in. "We drive it home in all the training that they're not to do anything until they're told," says Ronald Martin, Vancouver's emergency planning coordinator. "What we've learned from every catastrophic earthquake, historically, is that you want to prioritize where you need to be first."
If you live on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and this is indeed the Big One -- a subduction quake of about magnitude nine, about as bad as they get -- your troubles have only started. The 1,000-km fault running offshore from B.C. to northern California has ruptured as it does every 500 years or so. It generates a tsunami as powerful as the killer that devastated the coasts of the Indian Ocean last Dec. 26. If you live in Port Alberni, you'll hear the wail of the only permanently mounted tsunami siren on Canada's West Coast. If you live in communities like Zeballos or Tofino, you have 15 or 20 minutes to find high ground before your town is swept into the Pacific. The plan is simple enough, says Bill Heidrick, the volunteer emergency planning coordinator for Zeballos. "When they go through the biggest shake of their lives," he says, "they're to pick themselves up, dig themselves out and get their butts out of town just as fast as they can."
One in 10: those are the odds, most experts say, that a Big One will hit B.C. and the U.S. West Coast in the next 50 years, releasing in one horrific shuddering event as much energy as the U.S. consumes in a month. Such subduction quakes have struck off the West Coast 13 times in the past 6,000 years -- caused when the Juan de Fuca oceanic plate succeeds in its ceaseless effort to push under North America. The most recent subduction quake there hit on Jan. 26, 1700 -- releasing about the same force as the killer quake and tsunami last December, which killed an estimated 300,000 along the coasts of Southeast Asia. The shaking lasted so long people fell ill. Oral histories of native people speak of a huge battle of the gods. The resulting tsunami tossed whales onto land, drowned forests, wiped out an entire Indian village on Vancouver Island, and killed untold others. It inundated the coast in a telltale layer of silt, and crossed the Pacific, wreaking havoc on Japanese coastal villages.
The west coast of Vancouver Island should protect B.C.'s major cities from the brunt of a tsunami. But leaving aside the Big One they are vulnerable to a potentially deadlier kind of quake: land-based "crustal" quakes, with the potential for serious structural damage. That was the stark warning in a paper presented at an earthquake engineering conference in Vancouver last August. There's a 12 per cent probability in the next 50 years of a structurally damaging crustal quake hitting Vancouver, and a 21 per cent chance of it striking Victoria, warn study authors Tuna Onur, of the Geological Survey of Canada, and Mark Seemann, an analyst with B.C.'s Provincial Emergency Program, or PEP. Their conclusion: "The probabilities are high enough to demand comprehensive earthquake preparedness, response and recovery planning" by individuals and all levels of government.
Crustal quakes of magnitude six or seven occur on land in B.C. and northern Washington state with great regularity. A seven quake can be expected every 30 or 40 years, and a six about every 20. Where they hit makes all the difference. In 2001, a 6.8 quake occurred deep in the Earth's crust, about 50 km southwest of Seattle, causing $2 billion in damage. In 1946, a 7.3 quake in a sparsely populated area of Vancouver Island caused minor property damage, but triggered more than 300 landslides over 20,000 sq. km. "That was kind of lucky," says John Clague, a specialist in natural hazard research at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby. "There's no reason -- with our current level of knowledge -- to think such an earthquake couldn't occur closer, much closer, even very close, to Victoria or to Vancouver."
Moderate to large quakes can be devastating, even in cities with high seismic construction standards. In 1994, a 6.7 quake near Los Angeles killed 57 and caused an estimated US$40 billion in damage. A year later, a 6.9 quake and firestorm in the port city of Kobe, Japan, killed about 6,000 people and caused some US$200 billion in damage. One of the few public studies of potential earthquake damage in Vancouver was released in 1992 by the Munich Reinsurance Co. of Canada. It estimated the economic loss from a 6.5 crustal earthquake under Vancouver at $14 billion to $32 billion. A 2001 report for the insurance-industry-funded Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction estimated that a 6.5 quake under the neighbouring city of New Westminster would cause $8.5 billion in regional fire damage alone.
"The absolute worst-case scenario," says Clague, "would be a shallow magnitude seven earthquake within, say, 20 or 30 km of Seattle or Victoria or Vancouver. That would be catastrophic. Even with very high quality, up-to-date building design, it will be catastrophic." Just how bad, and how likely, is information that is sadly lacking. Seismic studies of the wildly different levels of localized ground shaking in a quake are a U.S. federal priority. In B.C., there are few such studies. "Here it's a provincial responsibility," says Clague, "and the provinces have been quite loath to do anything with it." One of the great unanswered questions is how badly the sandy soil of the Fraser River delta would liquefy in a quake. The delta is home to hundreds of thousands of people, as well as Vancouver International Airport, a major B.C. Ferries terminal, massive coal and container ports, and vital electrical transmission lines to Vancouver Island. "It's a very vulnerable little patch of land," says Clague.
Duck and cover is not just a classroom earthquake drill, it's been the approach of Canadian politicians to avoid spending on programs to harden water lines or retrofit hospitals. Preventing a bridge from collapsing 50 years hence doesn't win re-election in the short-term. Luck, fatalism and denial were the dubious pillars of earthquake planning for a disconcertingly long time. A few examples from a long list:
Canada withdrew from the Pacific Warning System, an international tsunami alert program, a year before the massive 1964 Alaska quake that sent a wall of water slamming into Port Alberni and other B.C. coastal communities. It quickly rejoined.
In 1989, Vancouver sold the only fire boat it owned at the time to a scrap dealer, a decision an insurance industry analysis would later call "shocking." San Francisco bought the boat the day after the devastating 1989 quake ruptured its waterlines and left hydrants useless. It remains in use today.
In 1995, the federal Liberals announced the closure of CFB Chilliwack, the only army base in B.C. The bulk of heavy equipment and regular troops needed in a disaster will now eventually arrive from Edmonton -- if roads are passable.
In the mid-1990s, provincial funds were so tight that the northern Vancouver Island village of Zeballos had to lure B.C. emergency officials there for a tsunami exercise with promises of free room and board. "It was pathetic," recalls Bill Heidrick, on the village council at the time. "Totally pathetic." An assessment last year of tsunami readiness in B.C., conducted by Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada, reached a similar, if more diplomatic, conclusion. It called Canada's mitigation efforts "inconsistently proactive and more often reactive." Local populations and governments, it said, "have tended to gradually under-prioritize the tsunami threat in many cases."
A 1997 analysis of earthquake preparedness by B.C.'s auditor general concluded provincial and local governments "are not yet adequately prepared for a major earthquake." Many of the concerns expressed -- lack of municipal emergency plans, and inadequate upgrading of critical infrastructure -- have since been addressed, says Bob Bugslag, executive director of PEP. By next year, regional governments will be required by law to draft emergency plans. Seismic upgrades of most major bridges and dams are in the final stage, and five regional emergency centres have been established throughout B.C. The provincial earthquake plan has been folded into a more flexible "all-hazards" plan, capable of responding to the recent years of forest fires and floods. These disasters have drawn welcome political attention and resources, says Bugslag. "Something that's obscure, a lower-probability event like an earthquake, is a much more difficult sell."
The risk is not limited to B.C. The corridor from Ottawa through Montreal to Quebec City is also vulnerable to a quake. The likelihood of a quake hitting the West Coast is "an order of magnitude higher," says Paul Kovacs, executive director of the Toronto-based Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, but the potential death and property loss is greater in the populous Ottawa-Montreal region. "When you combine the likelihood of a damaging earthquake with the values of the property at risk," he says, "it's our view that the risk in the Montreal area and the risk in the Vancouver area are similar." The level of awareness, however, is substantially less. For instance, two per cent of Montreal-area homeowners carry earthquake insurance, compared to 65 percent in Greater Vancouver.
Kovacs is lobbying for a federal mitigation strategy to underwrite the cost of protecting communities from natural disasters. "It's such an obvious complement to having a plan about how you pay for the cleanup: to have a national plan to pay for avoiding the problem." For example, unreinforced buildings and hydro poles and transmission towers contributed to the $5.5-billion damage of the ice storm that hit Quebec, eastern Ontario and parts of the Maritimes in 1998. "It's the biggest thing that's happened in Canada," says Kovacs, "until the $30-billion quake happens in Vancouver."
Ronald Martin, Vancouver's emergency planning coordinator, wheels through downtown, showing off some examples of the city's substantial -- and largely self-financed -- recent commitment to emergency planning. The first stop, tucked under a park on the edge of False Creek, is the control room of the $51-million salt-water firefighting system. The self-contained facility can run five days on its own power, pumping sea water to an independent, earthquake-hardened system of high-pressure lines and hydrants protecting the high-density downtown core. No city in the world has a water backup system as advanced, including, unfortunately, any other earthquake-vulnerable cities in B.C. or Canada.
Martin swings through Gastown and the Downtown Eastside, where hundreds of old brick and unreinforced masonry buildings would be at high risk of collapse. He passes the large Main Street police substation. "That one is highly vulnerable," he says. Later, on the subject of at-risk buildings, he adds Vancouver's art deco city hall to the list, and, especially, St. Paul's Hospital. "That one," he says, "is out there like a chrome-plated zeppelin." He pulls into a community centre parking lot and stops at a locked metal shipping container decorated with Peanuts cartoon characters painted by schoolchildren. The unmarked box -- one of 23 emergency supply caches placed throughout the city -- contains 375 cots, blankets, dried soup and other supplies. He points to a low-income housing complex overlooking the cheerfully painted container. "It's all unreinforced masonry and cinder block," he says with a grimace. "You've got soft stories all along the base. Our concern is you're going to get vibrations, and it's just going to pancake."
The Vancouver area is a mixture of progress and problem. Vancouver, together with neighbouring cities and the port authority, purchased five high-speed fire boats, deployed throughout the region. The city now houses a fortified and self-contained regional emergency communications and tactical centre. Yet one major worry is that Vancouver is the only major city in North America still using overhead electric transmission in its central business district, according to the 2001 fire report for the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. "In past earthquakes," the report notes, "pole-mounted transformers arced and exploded." It identified another unrectified concern: of about 1,200 high-rise buildings in the area, just 20 per cent have sprinklers. And virtually none -- in stark contrast to the U.S. -- have their own firefighting water reservoirs.
The most thorough assessment of Vancouver's earthquake vulnerability has never been fully made public. The Delcan report -- commissioned in 1991 and completed in 1995 -- assessed 1,150 older buildings of three stories or more. It found 400 at high or very high risk, and extrapolated that 8,000 Vancouver buildings were vulnerable in a quake. It opened a can of worms the city has yet to deal with. Officials have refused to release the list of at-risk buildings, citing, at various times, the impact on private property values, the potential to cause panic and, most recently, that the report is out of date. But 10 years later, no coherent plan has been drafted to require the upgrade of private buildings, unless they change use from a warehouse to a loft apartment, for instance, or undergo renovation. Not even warning signs are required to give the public some inkling of the odds that a building where they visit, work or live won't come down on their heads.
Dave Jackson, appointed Vancouver's chief building official in February, says he has yet to read the report. He blames a series of personnel changes for the inaction. "We will be getting back up to speed on that," he says, "but not immediately." After long years of delay, there were to be consultations with private landlords and tenant groups about how the city's vulnerable buildings should be remediated, and who should pay. Recommendations were to reach council by this spring, but the seismic specialist, who would play a key role, left in 2003. The city has yet to hire a replacement. Releasing the Delcan report as an interim measure would be "misleading," says Jackson. "You could have your building named in that and people would not want to rent in that -- and maybe it's already been upgraded."
Other jurisdictions have shown more political will, often after being shamed into action. California halted construction of unreinforced masonry buildings after a 1933 quake hit Long Beach, collapsing 70 schools, damaging 120 others and killing five children who had the misfortune to be in a gymnasium after school hours. Los Angeles, mercifully, approved a seismic retrofit ordinance in 1982. By 1994 -- the year the devastating quake struck the city -- most of the 8,000 affected buildings had been upgraded or demolished, saving untold lives. Japan, as a report to Vancouver council noted in 2000, has had increasingly stringent seismic requirements since 1971. But Japan, like Canada, had no substantial laws requiring the upgrade of non-conforming buildings. That changed after the Kobe quake of 1995, when more than 80,000 buildings collapsed, 8,000 more were destroyed by fires, and 6,000 people died.
Any lessons Canada should take from such inaction are slow in getting through. Schools, for instance, aren't even on the federal emergency planning list of "critical infrastructure," although banks and national monuments are. That oversight shocks Brian Tucker, president of California-based GeoHazards International, an organization more used to educating Third World nations about the need for earthquake mitigation. Tucker wrote a letter this month to Anne McLellan, the responsible federal minister, urging that schools be accorded priority protection, and that the government play "a leadership role in helping create disaster-resilient communities both at home and around the world."
In B.C., a provincial decision late last year to finally speed up the strengthening of its hundreds of at-risk schools came only after a powerful lobby by parents, experts and students exposed the degree to which children were potentially in danger. And there is another heartening bit of progress. The provincial auditor general's office is about to commit to an annual review of the province's state of emergency readiness, says Bugslag, the provincial emergency program head.
That there are few such champions forcing the issue onto agendas at all levels of government is no surprise to Nathan Lusignan, 20, a graduate of Vancouver Technical Secondary School, one of the worst potential deathtraps in the province. The school is now slated for repairs, in no small measure because Lusignan and fellow students lobbied relentlessly for years. The indifference they initially faced at one scarily deficient school is the national problem in microcosm. "I think it's because it's an abstract threat in a way," says Lusignan, who spent his high school years waiting for the roof to fall in. "There isn't a social memory here of an earthquake." Who's to blame, he asks rhetorically? Successive governments, the media, maybe society at large, he suggests. No one wants to spend for what might happen in the future, he discovered. "It's a culture of now."
And that's the thing. Probably there won't be a quake today. Or tomorrow. Or this century. Probably they thought that in Kobe and Banda Aceh, too. Then the luck runs out. That's the one certainty the geological record provides. One day, inevitably, the ground will shake.