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Despite announcing funding for seismic upgrades at schools in April 2013, B.C. Premier Christy Clark has been criticized for her government’s lack of preparedness for a potential catastrophic earthquake.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

A damning report by the Auditor-General that says British Columbia isn't ready to handle a catastrophic earthquake has drawn a prompt response from the provincial government, which promises to fix the problem.

But this isn't the first time the government has been warned that its disaster response agency, Emergency Management BC (EMBC), isn't ready to deal with the aftermath of a big earthquake.

Auditor-General Russ Jones said the findings of the audit surprised him because his office first advised the government about just such safety concerns in a report 17 years ago.

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"Progress has been made in some areas over this intervening period, but overall the province is still at a significant risk if a catastrophic earthquake were to occur today," Mr. Jones states. "One of the main causes for this lack of progress is that preparing for a catastrophic earthquake has not been made a priority."

The report, released just days before the 50th anniversary of a 9.2 magnitude earthquake that shattered Alaska and sent a massive tsunami down the West Coast, concludes EMBC doesn't have an adequate earthquake response plan in place and isn't fully staffed.

"We found critical gaps in areas such as EMBC's earthquake response plans and procedures, its training exercises and public education programs and its oversight of stakeholder readiness and capacity," states the report.

At a Victoria news conference, Mr. Jones noted the government has promised to quickly implement the report's recommendations.

"I am encouraged to hear that some progress is being made," he said.

But Mr. Jones said his office would continue to monitor EMBC to ensure that changes do occur.

In his report, he praised EMBC staff for the work they do responding to floods, fires, avalanches and other emergencies throughout B.C., but he said the agency "cannot demonstrate that it is adequately prepared" for the major earthquake that is expected to hit the province some time in the future.

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Geological scientists say mega-thrust earthquakes, such as the one that struck Alaska on March 27, 1964, killing 131 people, occur on the West Coast on average about every 600 years.

But Mr. Jones suggested the threat may be more immediate than that, because experts have recently estimated a 12-per-cent probability of a catastrophic earthquake striking B.C. in the next 50 years.

The report says a catastrophic earthquake, or one more than magnitude 8, could result in a high number of casualties, and cause extensive infrastructure damage.

Mr. Jones said such an event would be a blow to the economy, citing an Insurance Bureau of Canada report that estimates a major earthquake on B.C.'s populated south coast, combined with a tsunami, could cause damages of nearly $75-billion.

The report calls on the government to ensure "that EMBC has the capacity necessary to address identified critical gaps and achieve government's expected level of preparedness."

Shortly after the report was released, Attorney-General Suzanne Anton promised to address the safety shortfalls.

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"Government has accepted and will be taking immediate action on all nine of the Auditor-General's recommendations," she said.

Ms. Anton described the audit as "a tough report" but said it also "offers a great opportunity" for B.C. to take necessary steps to prepare for a major earthquake.

She said the government has already launched a consultation process on seismic preparedness and a public education campaign will be launched soon "to help ensure more British Columbians are prepared if the 'big one' hits."

She also promised annual public reports by EMBC and said steps will be taken to make earthquake planning a priority at the agency, but she did not promise any more funding.

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