As most people know, the Lower Mainland of Vancouver, British Columbia (BC) is going to experience a severe earthquake at some point in time. The earthquake that so damaged San Francisco in 1988 measured 6.4 on the Richter scale. In the Lower Mainland, statistically a 6.5 scale earthquake has a probability of 65% in the next 50 years and a 9.0 earthquake has a probability of 15% during the next 50 years. The likelihood that the City of Vancouver will be seriously affected is high.
Although the City of Vancouver has not taken this possibility lightly, the practical experience and research gained during the CMTV Crisis Management Television filming their new program for their ‘Protect and Survive,’ Channel established a deep concern that office based businesses and social communities in the City are not adequately well prepared and that there is a lack of willingness to deal with this matter – in fact, in many quarters denial appears to be high. In fact, the only entities dealing with the severity of such an event appear to be those suppliers trying to sell safety products to the citizens of Vancouver. From a governance and sound Emergency Response Planning basis, this situation is seriously flawed.
CMTV Producers and their expert earthquake consultants 3Ci Global Solutions are now convinced that the negative effects of the anticipated earthquake will be very high and unnecessarily onerous for the City. The reason for their concern is a little talked about major fault line that Vancouver sits right against: ‘The Cascadia Subduction Zone’.
It is argued by seismologists that the next full-margin rupture of the Cascadia subduction zone will spell the worst natural disaster in the history of the continent.
They know that how long an earthquake lasts is a decent proxy for its magnitude. The 1989 earthquake in Loma Prieta, California, which killed sixty-three people and caused six billion dollars’ worth of damage, lasted about fifteen seconds and had a magnitude of 6.9. A thirty-second earthquake generally has a magnitude in the mid-sevens. A minute-long quake is in the high sevens, a two-minute quake has entered the eights, and a three-minute quake is in the high eights. By four minutes, an earthquake has hit magnitude 9.0. [*]
The Cascadia subduction zone, runs for seven hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, beginning near Cape Mendocino, California, continuing along Oregon and Washington, and terminating around Vancouver Island, Canada. The “Cascadia” part of its name comes from the Cascade Range, a chain of volcanic mountains that follow the same course a hundred or so miles inland. The “subduction zone” part refers to a region of the planet where one tectonic plate is sliding underneath (subducting) another. Tectonic plates are those slabs of mantle and crust that, in their epochs-long drift, rearrange the earth’s continents and oceans. Most of the time, their movement is slow, harmless, and all but undetectable. Occasionally, at the borders where they meet, it is not.
Thirty years ago, no one knew that the Cascadia subduction zone had ever produced a major earthquake. Forty-five years ago, no one even knew it existed. Thanks to research by many renowned seismologists, we now know that the Pacific Northwest has experienced forty-one subduction-zone earthquakes in the past ten thousand years. Seismologists calculate that if you divide ten thousand by forty-one, you get two hundred and forty-three, which is Cascadia’s recurrence interval: the average amount of time that elapses between earthquakes. This further to unknown time span is extreme dangerous for it has allowed us to build an entire civilization on top of our continent’s worst fault line—and because it is not long enough. Counting from the earthquake of 1700, we are now three hundred and fifteen years into a two-hundred-and-forty-three-year cycle. Waiting for the ‘Sleeping Monster beneath your feet’ to raise its head and create havoc and mass destruction of 21st century civilization as never seen before.
It is lunacy, however, to dispute the scale of the problem. The devastation in Japan in 2011 was the result of a discrepancy between what the best science predicted and what the region was prepared to withstand. The same will hold true in the Pacific Northwest—but here the discrepancy is enormous. The gap between what we know and what we should do about it is getting bigger and bigger, and the emergency planners really need to turn up the heat to ensure the public knows what to do when this disaster occurs.
The first sign that a Cascadia earthquake has begun will be a compressional wave, radiating outward from the fault line. Compressional waves are fast-moving, high-frequency waves, audible to dogs and certain other animals but experienced by humans only as a sudden jolt. They are not very harmful, but they are potentially very useful, since they travel fast enough to be detected by sensors thirty to ninety seconds ahead of other seismic waves. That is enough time for earthquake early-warning systems to automatically perform a variety of lifesaving functions: shutting down railways and power plants, opening elevators and firehouse doors, alerting hospitals to halt surgeries, and triggering alarms so that the general public can take cover. These types of alert system allows office workers in the City very little time to appreciate the magnitude of what is going to happen next. The frightening issue here is that the Pacific Northwest has no early-warning system. When the Cascadia earthquake begins, there will be, instead, a cacophony of barking dogs and a long, suspended, what-was-that moment before the surface waves arrive. Surface waves are slower, lower-frequency waves that move the ground both up and down and side to side: the shaking, starting in earnest.
Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, TV’s everything that’s on a shelf may fall. Cookers and refrigerators will vibrate across kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.
Interesting statistical data on the number of estimated office workers regarding Vancouver downtown office occupancy as extracted from bizMap 2009, is somewhat outdated, but even working off these 2009 figures one can reasonably assume that given the additional office space which has been added since then, the numbers of office workers at risk are now significantly increased. It is interesting to note that at the time of the 2009 publication, 33% of Vancouver’s commercial buildings were constructed prior to 1946 giving rise to serious concerns over earthquake building standards and the potential special office preparedness and response considerations.
Just over the border in Oregon, USA, the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI), estimates that seventy-five per cent of all structures in their state are not designed to withstand a major Cascadia quake. FEMA calculates that, across the region, something on the order of a million buildings—more than three thousand of them schools—will collapse or be compromised in the earthquake. So will half of all highway bridges, fifteen of the seventeen bridges spanning Portland’s two rivers, and two-thirds of railways and airports; also, one-third of all fire stations, half of all police stations, and two-thirds of all hospitals.
The shaking from the Cascadia quake will also set off landslides throughout the affected areas. One prophecy is that it will cause up to thirty thousand of them in the city of Seattle alone. It will also induce a process called liquefaction, whereby seemingly solid ground starts behaving like a liquid, to the impairment of anything on top of it. Much of Vancouver is built upon liquefiable land. So Vancouver’s critical infrastructures are all in the firing line of the deadly effects of an earthquake. Together, the sliding, and shaking will trigger fires, flooding, gas and water pipe failures, dam breaches, and unquantifiable hazardous-material spills. Any one of these second-order disasters could swamp the original earthquake in terms of cost, damage, or casualties—and one of them definitely will. Four to six minutes after the dogs start barking, the shaking will subside. For another few minutes, the City will continue to fall apart on its own. Then the deadly tsunami wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin.
Jay Wilson of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC), said: “When that tsunami is coming, you run,” “You protect yourself, you don’t turn around, you don’t go back to save anybody. You run for your life.”
The time to save people from a tsunami is before it happens, but the whole of BC has not yet taken serious steps toward doing so. Hotels and businesses are still not mandatorily required to post evacuation routes or to provide employees with earthquake and tsunami evacuation training.
These lax safety policies guarantee that many people inside the inundation zone will not get out. Most people, who either live, work or are tourists to Vancouver won’t have a clue as to how to evacuate.
As for the number of casualties being affected, one has to look to the US for statistics. The figures being talked about for an earthquake occurring in the Cascadia Subduction are —twenty-seven thousand injured, almost thirteen thousand dead—and these are based upon the US FEMA agency’s official planning scenario, which has the earthquake striking at 9:41 A.M. on February 6th. If, instead, it strikes in the summer, when the beaches are full, those numbers could be off by a horrifying margin. Figures for Canada are not readily available.
OSSPAC estimates that in the I-5 corridor it will take between one and three months after the earthquake to restore electricity, a month to a year to restore drinking water and sewer service, six months to a year to restore major highways, and eighteen months to restore health-care facilities. On the coast, those numbers go up. Whoever chooses or has no choice but to stay there will spend three to six months without electricity, one to three years without drinking water and sewage systems, and three or more years without hospitals. Those estimates do not apply to the tsunami-inundation zone, which will remain all but uninhabitable for years. Yet again Canada cannot predict the consequences facing the communities of BC but one can fairly bet that these figures will be equally alarming.
How much all this will cost is anyone’s guess; the economy of the City and Pacific Northwest could quite easily collapse. Crippled by a lack of basic services, businesses will fail or move away. Many residents will flee as well. It will see a mass-displacement event and a long-term population downturn.
The Cascadia subduction ‘Monster’ zone remained hidden from us for so long. It poses a danger to us today because we have not thought deeply enough about the future and the consequences of what this type of earthquake will really bring. That is no longer a problem of information; we now understand very well what the Cascadia fault line will someday do. Nor is it a problem of imagination, apocalyptic visions do not necessarily create a plan of action.
The Cascadia situation, a sleeping monster in its own right, is also prompts us to ask:
“How should Vancouver and the rest of BC respond to a looming crisis of uncertain timing but of devastating proportions? How can it begin to right itself when its entire infrastructure and culture developed in a way that leaves it profoundly vulnerable to natural disaster?
CMTV think that we should start right at the beginning and learn to talk about the threat and not adopt ‘Ostrich Style’ emergency management to handle this catastrophic threat sleeping beneath our feet.
The author acknowledges certain information is abstracted from “The earthquake that will devastate the Pacific North West –The Really Big One” – Kathryn Schultz. 2015