Saturday, March 12, 2011

On Shaky Ground

I've only been through one significant earthquake, so far as I know, and I didn't even feel it. The 2010 Central Canada earthquake set the ground shaking from Halifax to West Virginia, but since I was on a streetcar or something at the time I had to find out about it from people who I thought were pulling my leg at first.

It's been six months since my move to British Columbia, and I haven't felt an earthquake here either. This state of affairs, I hope, will continue for a long time to come. But I feel that recent events demand a re-examination of this sense of security. From the quake that levelled parts of Christchurch, New Zealand last month to Japan's record-breaking devastation, the clear and present threat of a major earthquake in British Columbia is something that we - the people and, more importantly, our government - must not ignore.

The 2011 Sendai earthquake, in particular, had better be a wakeup call for British Columbia's leadership - as a megathrust earthquake with a moment magnitude of 8.9 to 9.1, it falls well within the calculated strength of the 1700 Cascadia earthquake - and given that the seismic zone that created that quake rumbles every three hundred to five hundred years, on average, what's happening in Japan today could happen in Vancouver tomorrow.

I'm not saying it will. Over the last three millennia, the shortest estimated separation between major quakes was three hundred and ninety years, so the Lower Mainland likely has some leeway yet. Plus, it's not like earthquakes are a new thing for British Columbia - a significant temblor beneath Vancouver Island in 1946 shook much of the Lower Mainland, and the city didn't come tumbling down. What I can't say, because I have no way to know, is how well the Lower Mainland is prepared to deal with this sort of disaster.

This sign, one of many throughout Metro Vancouver, identifies the Kingsway in Burnaby as an emergency services-only road in the event of a disaster.

Japan, like British Columbia, is right atop the Pacific Ring of Fire. Earthquakes have been a fact of life in Japan for as long as there has been human life in Japan. Its cities are built to withstand earthquakes, to take the worst the shaking ground can give and stay standing - and despite that, the death toll already exceeds six hundred, and ten thousand people are still missing. This is in a country that holds regular earthquake drills. By contrast, here in British Columbia the Vancouver Island quake is getting close to the point where it'll pass out of living memory. Even though anyone here can see a stratovolcano on a clear day just by looking to the southeast horizon, I would not be surprised to learn that a substantial fraction of the Lower Mainland's population is unaware of the geological risks inherent in this land.

More than anything else, we need information. Spurred by the earthquake in Japan, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson told CTV News yesterday that many buildings in Vancouver would be vulnerable to just the sort of earthquake that will hit the Lower Mainland at some point in the future. Sure, investment's being done to ensure that bridges, public buildings, and schools won't collapse in the event of a quake - but what's the value of that if we end up facing a death toll in the tens of thousands thanks to apartment buildings that didn't make the grade?

These buildings need to be inspected. The potential dangers need to be made clear to the people who are living in them, and those dangers have to be addressed. It's literally the difference between life and death. Governments exist to protect their citizens - and with Christy Clark due to be sworn in as Premier of British Columbia next week, it's my hope that she starts BC on a path to ensuring that when the ground does shake, as many walls as possible stay up.

1 comment:

  1. I felt the Ontario shake. Thought it was my imagination. Quite disturbing.
    During my multiple visits to the west coast, from SF to Vancouver, I was always aware of the danger. You can't rely on luck to survive these events. There needs to be preemptive planning, both personal and public.