The Cascadia Fault: An Inconvenient Truth

The Cascadia Fault: An Inconvenient Truth

The human and economic devastation of the coming West Coast earthquakes is unimaginable. Whether it’s the magnitude-9 Big One that strikes first, or smaller—but equally deadly—temblors, recovery will take years, not weeks. Almost half of small businesses will fail. Hundreds of thousands of British Columbians will leave and never return. But as with any inevitability, there’s money to be made before and after the Cascadia fault changes our lives forever.

Now. Or now. Next Thursday. Tomorrow while you sleep. One morning as you’re crossing the Alex Fraser Bridge or inching through the George Massey Tunnel, thinking about time and traffic and lunch options when suddenly the pavement shrugs and the earth begins its awful dance while stolid structures begin undulating like studies in a surrealist’s sketchbook. It’s the Big One. First you pray that you—and your family and friends—will be the lucky ones. Next you ask yourself if you’re prepared. But none of us are in this alone, and the general state of affairs after a major earthquake will depend on more than just your household emergency kit. It will also depend in part on the preparations of business and government.

When? We’re better at predicting terrorist attacks than earthquakes, but don’t try telling that to the Italians. After an April 6, 2009, earthquake that killed 300 people in the Italian city of L’Aquila, seven scientists and engineers were convicted of manslaughter for their failure to properly warn residents. Like tribal shamen who fail to warn of catastrophe, they were sacrificed to that greatest of scientific uncertainties—the exact timing of our planet’s deadly tectonic adjustments.

The Cascadia fault—also known in more paranoid circles as the Cascadia Subduction Zone—runs offshore from somewhere near the top of Vancouver Island to northern California. Over the past five millennia it has ruptured with terrifying frequency. It will certainly rupture again, but this time with a string of 21st-century cities—high-rising, dense-with-people, globally interdependent regional capitals—stacked squarely in its impact zone.

One of the most recent probability surveys was done by the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission. Based on comparisons with the 2011 Japanese quake and tsunami, the Oregon study predicts a massive Cascadia quake could kill 10,000 people and cause $32 billion in damage in an area ranging from Vancouver Island to Vancouver and down as far as northern California.
Most British Columbians are not ready. But at least they know it. An Angus Reid poll conducted last year showed 61 per cent of B.C. adults are concerned about being personally affected by an earthquake and fully 87 per cent believe a major quake is coming within 50 years. And yet 60 per cent admit that they do not have an emergency kit—70 per cent have no emergency plan.
Although seemingly negligent to Californians and the Japanese, B.C.’s indifference shouldn’t be that surprising, considering the example being set at the top. A 2006 study by Zeidler Partnership Architects commissioned by the provincial government (but never released until it was revealed in 2011 by reporter Stanley Tromp in the Tyee) stated that unless Victoria’s provincial legislature receives well over $200 million in seismic upgrades, it will very likely suffer major damage in a significant temblor, resulting in considerable loss of life. Whatever other damage it might cause, a major quake would probably cripple the provincial government for months.

Who is most at risk? We’re all supposed to be asking that question but the really motivated people are insurance companies. Around the world actuaries map out areas of relative risk, known in the industry as CRESTA zones (Catastrophe Risk Evaluating and Standardizing Target Accumulations, an unwieldy name reportedly created to match the Cresta Hotel in Davos, Switzerland, where the system was devised in the late ’70s). In Canada an industry group, the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR, not as yet a hotel name), created a Canadian actuarial map that ranks seismic risk for individual postal codes. Thirteen B.C. codes fall into the “Extreme” category—all located in Victoria, Delta and Richmond. V7B, the postal code for YVR Airport, is among those extreme risk areas. Think about that: an airport that handled 17.6 million people in 2012, the air-traffic entry point into Vancouver, might be rendered unusable for months at any moment. According to YVR’s own figures the airport contributes $1.9 billion to Canadian GDP annually (as well as employing 23,600 people). YVR spokesperson Alisa Gloag says that the facility is very focused on seismic concerns—“Parts of the original 1968 domestic terminal are currently undergoing seismic upgrades,” she points out—but she’s cautious about the potential for runway damage. “It all depends on magnitude and location,” Gloag says. “We have three runways, so if one was damaged, then we would be able to adjust our operations accordingly.”

It all depends, indeed.

Four more codes fall into the “Very High” category—V8N and V9B in Greater Victoria, V4L in Delta and V4R in Maple Ridge. Two Abbotsford codes (V2S and V2T) are ranked “High,” as are V7P (southwest North Vancouver), V8W (home to the provincial legislature) and V9A (containing the Canadian Forces base in Esquimalt), among others. The bulk of Vancouver and neighbouring regions—Burnaby, Surrey, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, etc.—rank as “Moderate” or “Low.” (This means moderate or low risk for this region—it does not mean that the quake damage risk in Vancouver is as low as that of, say, Regina.)…


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