The storm that wasn’t (and the earthquake that will be)
Did we worry too much about the storm? Do we worry enough about a major quake?
The frustrating news spread quickly among Vancouver Island parents at last weekend’s B.C. Taekwando Master’s Cup in Burnaby: the ferries were cancelled and we would all have to spend the night on the mainland.
No one needed to ask why.
We all knew the cause of the cancellation: The remnants of super typhoon Songda would be the third big storm of the week, with some forecasters speculating it could be the strongest one to hit southern Vancouver Island since Typhoon Freda caused havoc in 1962.
In the end, though, it wasn’t as bad as many had predicted.
Yes, it was inconvenient for the thousands of people who lost power and for people like me who missed their ferries and were stuck on the mainland.
In fact, it was tragic for a 15-year-old boy who was killed by a falling branch in Surrey.
The popular response on social media, however, was that the storm was a bust. Photos of plastic patio chairs that had fallen over started to circulate under the hashtag #BCStorm and the cheeky caption “We will rebuild.”
Onboard the 7 a.m. sailing from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay the following morning, I laughed at some of those jokes on Twitter, and I confess I did wonder if perhaps BC Ferries had been a bit too cautious in cancelling so many sailings on that route the previous day.
But the obvious question is what would have happened if they hadn’t cancelled them, especially if the storm had been as big or even bigger than expected?
What would have been the public backlash if people’s lives had been put in jeopardy?
Now that the storm is a week behind us, it might be useful to turn our attention to the much bigger natural disaster that will strike one day and the task of managing the risk beforehand.
Of course I’m talking about a major earthquake.
And many more British Columbians are talking about it this week, in large part because of CBC’s excellent earthquake podcast and web series, Faultlines.
As someone who has been interested in — and worried about — a massive earthquake for many years, I was glad to hear someone else talking about it.
On our Victoria morning show I sometimes feel like I’m either terrifying our radio listeners or boring them.
I’ve lost track of the number of interviews I’ve done about school seismic upgrades, early warning systems, unreinforced masonry, earthquake insurance, liquefaction, tsunamis, dam collapses, and many more depressing earthquake-related issues.
But, to state an obvious point, it is important.
If the Big One hits British Columbia soon, it seems highly unlikely that the second-guessing after the disaster will bear any resemblance to the response to last weekend’s storm.
Last weekend, many of us asked if those in charge of public safety did too much. If a major earthquake were to happen next weekend, I’d wager, most of us would ask why they didn’t do more.
If the earthquake were to happen next week, many schools would collapse. Members of the public and the media would ask why they weren’t fixed sooner, and why early earthquake warning systems weren’t installed.
If the two dams above Campbell River fail and the city centre floods, many would ask why the warning signs (which may be installed in the next year or so) weren’t installed several years earlier.
If the iconic B.C Legislature collapses and public servants are buried inside, we will ask why it wasn’t strengthened sooner.
If thousands of our older houses collapse and insurance companies go bankrupt, we will ask if governments should have spent more money to help homeowners do seismic upgrades on their homes.
If gas leaks cause serious fires after the quake, we will ask why B.C. didn’t follow California’s lead and encourage homeowners to install earthquake natural gas shut-off valves.
And we’d have a lot more questions than those.
No doubt, there is a significant cost to doing all of these things, and many argue we can’t afford to do everything all at once.
But when we question those in charge of public safety for being too cautious, it’s worth pondering how we would feel in the future if the earth shakes and some of them haven’t been cautious enough.
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