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An earthquake hazard zone sign near the village of Anacla on Vancouver Island. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
An earthquake hazard zone sign near the village of Anacla on Vancouver Island. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

benjamin perrin

Victoria earthquake an urgent wake-up call Add to ...

Benjamin Perrin is a law professor at the University of British Columbia, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and former lead public safety adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office.

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The magnitude 4.7 earthquake near Victoria that was felt just before midnight on Dec. 29 failed to rouse my family and me from our holiday slumber at a downtown hotel in the B.C. capital. If we had been there more than 300 years before, for the massive magnitude 9 quake that hit the area on Jan. 26, 1700, it would have done more than get us out of bed.

Natural Resources Canada seismologists predict a one-in-10 chance of a similar megathrust quake occurring in the next 50 years off the B.C. coast. The Big One could be a magnitude 9 or more, and the chances of it occurring after that time period go up from there. Scientists say it’s a question of when, not if, it will happen.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a magnitude 9 earthquake is 2.8 million times stronger than a magnitude 4.7 quake. Such a quake in that location would result in the worst natural disaster in Canada’s history – and British Columbia is woefully unprepared for it.

British Columbians are told they should prepare a 72-hour emergency kit in the event of a big quake. Most people probably don’t have one, and I question whether it would really be enough to survive the aftermath of a big quake until essential services are restored.

One of the most appalling examples of the province’s lack of preparation for a massive earthquake is the state of its public schools. The B.C. government has helpfully posted an online building-by-building seismic assessment of each public school. What is less helpful is what it has done about it.

Dozens of schools, attended by thousands of children, are ranked as “high risk,” meaning that their century-old brick-and-mortar construction would collapse like a house of cards, killing and injuring students, teachers and staff if the quake struck while school is in session. Most of the handful of seismically upgraded or rebuilt schools are at full enrolment. Progress on making the others safer is slow – or not happening.

The implementation of a provincewide plan to make all schools seismically equipped, to safeguard the lives of children, has been pushed back a decade or so. In Vancouver, the provincial government blames the Vancouver School Board, and the school board blames the government (from what I can tell, the latter bears the brunt of responsibility). Both will hang high in the court of public opinion – and quite possibly a court of law in wrongful-death litigation – if the Big One takes place before the schools are brought up to standard. That will be cold comfort for families of young children who deserve society’s protection.

Hospitals in Vancouver are expected to face a similar fate, with some reports saying that emergency wards themselves are in buildings that are unlikely to survive a major quake. They, too, are in urgent need of upgrading or rebuilding.

It is unconscionable that Premier Christy Clark’s government, which is ultimately responsible for the safety of our schools and hospitals and earthquake preparations, has been unable to get this job done. Progress has been lethargic and half-hearted. The Premier needs to make it a top priority, with tight timelines and funding on the table. Her government might look to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a hand with these major infrastructure investments.

It would ultimately be the federal government’s Disaster Assistance Programs that would foot most of the bill in the event of such a catastrophe. It is a national crisis-in-waiting that would make past ice storms and floods look like low-budget disaster films in comparison.

Studies help to explain why people choose to live in areas susceptible to earthquakes: They tend to be in nice climates, and such disasters occur so infrequently that people simply forget about them over time, or live in ignorance of the risk. That fits Vancouver and the B.C. coast to a tee.

If the baby quake that ushered in the new year wasn’t enough to remind us that it is high time to prepare, I don’t know what it will take.

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