Is B.C. ready for the ‘Big One’? Q&A with Emergency Management B.C.
When large earthquakes happen around the world – such as the recent 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal that has killed over 7,500 people and affected eight million others – we are reminded of the looming threat a massive earthquake poses on South West B.C.
Appropriately dubbed ‘The Big One’, the mega-thrust quake expected to hit the Cascadia Subduction Zone just west of Vancouver will be at least a magnitude-9, the largest earthquake in B.C. since 1700 when First Nations recorded the event into their oral history, and was later proven by Japanese seismologists. Scientists know that large earthquakes on the same fault occur roughly every 200 to 850 years, placing present day right in the middle of this window.
Earthquakes Canada predicts the epicenter will be about 150 km from Vancouver. Dr. Michael Bostock, a professor of earthquake seismology at the University of British Columbia confirmed the threat to B.C., but stressed that those in Metro Vancouver should not worry too much about a tsunami flooding our shores.
“The Lower Mainland isn’t at risk of a tsunami because by the time that wave weaves its way to Vancouver, it may only be a metre high,” he said.
But western Vancouver Island communities such as Port Alberni and Tofino could suffer the blunt impact of a large wave.
“Tsunamis move at 500 to 600 kilometres per hour. They may have 10 to 30 minutes to get to higher elevations.”
In Vancouver, the safest place to be may be the city proper. Bostock says shaking and damages will be the worst along the Fraser River and Delta because of the poorly consolidated sediment beneath those areas. The weak foundation will cause the shaking to create the process of liquefaction where the soil behaves as a liquid.
Another area where residents should be on alert is on the North Shore where an earthquake could cause landslides from the surrounding mountains into communities.
Pat Quealey, the Assistant Deputy Minister of Emergency Management BC knows all too well the hazard looming ahead of the province. Because the question of an earthquake is not so much an “if” but a “when”, he is ensuring the province is as prepared as possible for the Big One. Quealey was recently able to share some insight into how the government will respond to a damaging earthquake:
So let’s say there is a destructive earthquake that causes widespread damage across Vancouver. What would be the first steps taken to respond to the emergency?
Emergency Management BC (EMBC) would activate the provincial emergency management structure and establish communications through all means available. We would also activate the BC Earthquake Immediate Response Plan that defines the framework for decision making and coordination in the immediate response to save lives, sustain human life, minimize suffering, stabilize critical infrastructure and set the conditions for sustained response and recovery.
The province would declare a Provincial State of Emergency to enact extraordinary powers to coordinate support across the province. We would consolidate initial damage assessments and gain situational awareness from all levels of government and critical infrastructure owners, and in coordination with partners, would collaborate to develop a common understanding of the impacts and needs of the affected jurisdictions. From this point we would determine where to focus support to local authorities and begin moving resources into the region to support immediate response efforts.
How does the province plan on communicating with people in the case of emergency, taking into account the potential loss of electricity and cell towers?
One lesson that emerges out of almost every catastrophic disaster around the world is that communication is never sufficient in an emergency. We all want immediate details, although that’s often not feasible. We all rely on technology and electricity and traditional means of getting information into the hands of public, until those means are disrupted.
The BC Government has a robust team of government communications officers that, in a catastrophic emergency, would collaborate and collectively provide information updates via media, social media and online channels as available, as well as through local authority channels and amateur radio as required. We have business continuity plans for the Emergency Management system in BC which include back-up facilities in other regions of the province that should still have access to these channels of communication if they are downed or disrupted in Victoria.
Text messaging and social media are often times more reliable than telephones and cell service, in part, because they send small parcels of information. One way to stay connected is through our social media channels, including Twitter (@EmergencyInfoBC).
With the recent oil spill in Burrard Inlet, we saw conflicts over whose jurisdiction the response was in. How would the city, province, and federal governments work together in the case of a damaging earthquake?
Our guiding principles is based on cooperation and integration across all levels of government, and this would be especially important in a catastrophic event where unity of effort is key to success.
This would require the co-locating of decision makers, all levels of government, critical infrastructure owners and nongovernment organizations. Provincial Operations centers at the regional level, which are located around the province, would coordinate requests and help in the prioritization of resources to support local authorities in their response efforts. A central, provincial emergency operations centre in Victoria would serve as the main hub for information and work with regional, provincial, federal and international partners regarding the movement of resources into and throughout the region. Federal, provincial, regional and local staging areas would be activated to support a logistics movement system.
What is the worst case scenario and how would B.C. respond to it?
The worst case scenario for B.C. is a major, shallow earthquake beneath our major urban centers of either Vancouver or Victoria. This is due to a number of factors: population density, significant infrastructure (including the B.C. legislature) and significant economic drivers like the Port of Metro Vancouver. A Cascadia Subduction Zone event (out in the ocean) will also be a catastrophic event, but as we have less population and infrastructure directly on our coast, as compared to our U.S. counterparts, it is not considered our worst case. Saying this, EMBC’s earthquake planning will apply to any major seismic event impacting B.C. and can be tailored to support response focusing on Vancouver Island with a tsunami component.
Does our province currently have the capacity to manage an emergency situation where millions could be affected over a wide region, taking into account the possibility of a tsunami on top of a destructive earthquake?
Our success is based on cooperation between all levels of government and response agencies and our plans reflect cooperation and integration including support that will come from outside of B.C.
We know that the work of preparing for an emergency is never complete. We all have a responsibility to prepare as best we can and much has been done in B.C. to prepare, for instance:
- In our three-year strategic plan, Emergency Management BC describes its priorities to support the mitigation and management of emergencies in BC.
- An inter-agency B.C. Earthquake Planning Team is currently revising the immediate response plan that outlines very specific actions undertaken in a catastrophic earthquake.
- We have also created a logistics team that will be critical during and after the event, as well as an exercise and training team to help us prepare, and additional operational staff.
- We have invested in upgrades to the Provincial Emergency Notification System and are participating in the national broadcast alerting system to be implemented across Canada in 2016.
We also capitalize on the synergies provided by working collaboratively and in coordination with partner agencies:
- Funding support to SAR, Vancouver’s HUSAR and Ocean Networks for tsunami relating mapping.
- Agreements with neighboring jurisdictions like Washington State and Alberta, as well as agencies like Department of National Defence and the Canadian Red Cross to expedite help when and if needed.
- Created the B.C. Seismic Safety Council and Chair of the B.C. Tsunami Notification Networking Group, both inter-agency forums focusing on seismic mitigation and improving communication and tsunami response operations.
We work closely with local authorities and First Nations to help in their emergency plans and preparations, including:
- 25 tsunami information presentations throughout coastal B.C. last summer to help residents prepare and respond to earthquake risks.
- Developed the Community Emergency Plan Review Tool Kit to help local authorities assess their emergency plan.
What are some items every household should have in case of an emergency, and what are the first things people should do when they feel an earthquake?
When people feel shaking they need to immediately “Drop, Cover, Hold On”. Drop to the ground, take cover by getting under a sturdy table or desk, and hold on until the shaking stops. If there isn’t a table or desk near you, drop to the ground in an inside corner of the building and cover your head and neck with your hands and arms. Do not try to run to another room just to get under a table. Always wait several minutes after the shaking stops before coming out from under the protection of what is covering you; items that did not fall initially could be insecure and still fall, and aftershocks may continue and cause additional dangers.
Our first line of defence is to have a plan and an emergency kit to help us survive on our own for a minimum of 72 hours with the likelihood of needing to be self-sufficient for up to a week in a catastrophic event.
We’ve all heard that it takes water and food supplies, but there’s so much more to surviving emotionally as well. People forget a toothbrush and that the basics of ensuring hygiene and sanitation contribute deeply to coping psychologically. Likewise, children need to keep busy and comforted, so a deck of cards or a teddy bear can go a long way. Pets need supplies. Simply storing your camping gear near your emergency supplies helps ensure cooking and lodging and some of the other essentials are at hand. Having a spare pair of hiking boots is much more feasible than trying to walk home from work in heels, same as a spare pair of glasses or medications that you need considering you won’t have access to a pharmacy.
There is much to think about, yes, but the scope of planning shouldn’t paralyze us into inaction. The best foot forward begins with the ensuring basics and you can get a list of what to pack or purchase from Emergency Info B.C. or from www.getprepared.gc.ca.
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