Are We Ready for the Big One?

Vancouver is due -- perhaps overdue -- for a major earthquake. And most of us have no idea what that might mean

May 8, 2015

This story was first published in the April 2012 issue of the magazine

 

For someone whose business is disaster, Anne Ward is uncommonly charming. Today, Ward, an older woman who lives in Kitsilano but is originally from Saskatoon, is wearing two-inch silver heels, a shimmering gold shawl, and jade earrings with a matching amulet that looks vaguely Mayan. “I figure you got to look good while you can,” she says with a slight prairie twang. “It’ll come soon enough.”

Ward is president and CEO of Krasicki and Ward, an emergency preparedness supply store in City Square Mall at 12th and Cambie, right next to a beauty salon and below a Fitness World. The “it” she’s referring to is the big one, a major earthquake. In her store, you can buy earthquake survival kits, big bricks of high-calorie rations, crowbars and hatchets, solar-charged flashlights, emergency toilets in a bag called Wag Bags, and most anything else needed for the apocalypse. “You can try calling 911, if the phone lines are operational,” she says, raising a knowing eyebrow. “But you know what? You might not be their highest priority.”

Ward escorts me past shelves of first-aid kits, hand-cranked radios, and something called QuakeHOLD! Gel™ for Glass and Crystal to a rack stocked with her bestsellers: pre-packed gym bags stuffed with essentials for the first 72 hours ($43.99 for the one-person standard kit). There’s drinking water in aluminum foil packets, rations that taste like shortbread, a Mylar blanket, pressure dressings. Ward suggests I pick up a kit now, while they’re still in stock. “After the Japan quake, we completely sold out of emergency food and water. The phone rang off the hook for days. We had nothing left.”

Taped to the store window is a printout of all the earthquakes recorded in British Columbia in the last week. Dozens of tremors shook the province, including a 4.0 magnitude quake in Port Hardy. That’s not an unusual week. British Columbia is located along the edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, one of the planet’s most active tectonic zones. Nine of the 10 largest earthquakes on record have happened along its flanks, including the 2011 Japan quake, the 2010 Chile quake, and the 2004 Indian Ocean quake, which together killed roughly 250,000 people. There are no B.C. earthquakes on this top 10 list. Yet.

 

THE QUESTION ISN’T if an earthquake like the one that devastated Japan last March [editor’s note: one month before this story ran] will hit Vancouver. It’s when. The Japanese quake, which killed more than 20,000 people and caused up to $300 billion in economic damage, as well as the Chilean and Indian Ocean earthquakes, are examples of what seismologist call mega-thrust events. Occurring at the boundaries of tectonic plates, these are the planet’s largest earthquakes, capable of achieving magnitudes of 9.0 and above. (For perspective, the shaking in a magnitude 9.0 earthquake is about 500 times stronger than the shaking in the 2011 magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck near Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 184 people. The familiar Richter scale isn’t even capable of measuring the true size of a megathrust earthquake — it maxes out around a relatively modest 7.5. Scientists instead rely on something called a moment magnitude scale to assess the strength of these temblors.)

Geological records show that mega-thrust quakes have violently shaken southwestern B.C. at least 13 times in the last 6,000 years. The last one was a 9.0 quake off the west coast of Vancouver Island on the evening of January 26, 1700, 78 years before Capt. James Cook became the first European to set foot here. According to First Nations oral traditions, the ground shook so hard that people couldn’t stand, for so long that it made them sick. The ensuing tsunami destroyed whole villages and washed canoes into trees. Monster waves crossed the Pacific and rocked the coast of Japan, showing up in historical records that allowed researchers to pinpoint the exact time and date of the quake.

On average, we can expect one of these megaquakes every 500 to 600 years in B.C., though they have occurred as little as 210 years apart. Our clock has been ticking now for 312 years. “The best estimate we have is a 10 to 15 percent chance of a megathrust event within the next 50 years,” says John Cassidy, head of earthquake seismology at the Geological Survey of Canada, Pacific Division. “But there are huge uncertainties. It could happen later this afternoon.” Cassidy, who’s stationed near Sidney on Vancouver Island, comes off more as amiable high school science teacher than perhaps Canada’s preeminent earthquake authority. Between explaining plate dynamics, he tells me of the morning back in 1990 when he was typing up his doctoral thesis on earthquakes at UBC and a 5.0 quake hit Washington, shaking him at his computer. “It was a sign,” he says, “that I was in the right field.”

The cause of B.C.’s seismic troubles lies in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a 1,300-kilometre undersea fault that runs along the west coast from Brooks Peninsula on Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino in Northern California. Here, the undersea Juan de Fuca plate is sinking, or subducting, beneath the North American plate at the rate of about 4.5 centimetres a year. Or at least it’s trying to. For the last three centuries, the plates have been locked up, grinding together but getting nowhere. After all that time, the North American plate is now springloaded to lurch up to 14 metres west in the next megathrust quake. “We’re talking about three or four or even five minutes of intense shaking,” Cassidy says. “And it’s not just one city. It’s Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Portland. Even high-rises in Toronto could sway.”

Seismically speaking, this isn’t our only concern. Between these monster events, mounting stress within plates triggers other kinds of earthquakes both in the earth’s crust and deep below. Hundreds of these temblors, known respectively as crustal and deep earthquakes, happen every year in B.C., as Anne Ward’s sign attests. Most are never felt. Some are. On June 23, 1946, a 7.3 crustal earthquake struck central Vancouver Island, the strongest quake recorded on land in Canada. It caused only two deaths, but were a similar quake to strike beneath Vancouver, the results could be disastrous. Cassidy draws a comparison to the 6.9 Kobe, Japan, quake in 1995 that killed more than 5,500 people and damaged some 200,000 buildings. “Because these earthquakes are close to the surface, the shaking tends to be much stronger and more damaging.” Cassidy estimates that there’s a 10 percent chance of one of these powerful crustal or deep earthquakes striking here in the next half-century.

In other words, Vancouver isn’t facing the prospect of the big one, but the big ones. Adding up our multiple seismic threats — crustal, deep, and megathrust — there’s a one-in-four chance of a major, destructive earthquake striking in the next 50 years. This isn’t a worst-case scenario. It’s the consensus among the country’s leading seismologists. And nothing keeps them up at night quite like the big daddy, the full-on 9.0 megathrust.

 

HOW A MEGATHRUST earthquake will affect Vancouver is impossible to predict with precision; it would vary with the intensity and duration of shaking, distance from the rupture, and even time of day. But according to the best guess of geologists and engineers, the next big one may unfold something like this.

It starts 150 kilometres out to sea. After centuries of strain, the Cascadia Subduction Zone finally gives way, splitting along its length like a giant zipper coming undone. Instantly, pressure waves race out at up to 28,800 kilometres per hour, rattling Vancouver Island and reaching Vancouver within as little as 25 seconds. As the ground starts to tremble, traffic on city roads and bridges slows to a standstill. In offices, at schools, and in homes people freeze. A more seismically savvy populous, say in Japan or California or New Zealand, would be collectively dropping under tables and desks right now, covering up and holding on. Not us. We don’t even know what this is. The shaking feels at first like a jackhammer and sounds like the crescendo of an approaching train.

After half a minute, when most quakes would be winding down, our real problem starts. Slower-travelling shear waves, which move like ripples along a rope, barrel in, thrashing the ground from side to side and up and down. Modern structures are designed to withstand these forces, but not the thousands of buildings in Vancouver constructed before 1953, when comprehensive seismic standards were first adopted in Canada. Older brick edifices like St. Paul’s Hospital — some held together with little more than crumbling mortar — are the first to fail.

“Our traditional concern is always older construction, especially unreinforced masonry buildings,” confirms Carlos Ventura, director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Facility at UBC. Born in Guatemala, Ventura worked as an earthquake engineer with the California Geological Survey before joining UBC, where he now simulates quakes on hangar-sized shake tables that accommodate two-storey homes. “We’ll have a good percentage of these buildings with severe damage — walls collapsing, partial collapse, and possibly full collapses.” Gastown, Yaletown, and Main Street, home to much of the city’s older brick, stone, and clay tile structures, will be hit especially hard.

It’s not just heritage buildings at risk, however. As shear waves pound the city for minutes on end, even structures built to updated seismic standards sway, crack, and, in some cases, fail. “What the earthquakes in Japan and Chile taught us is that duration of shaking becomes important,” Ventura says. “You take a paper clip and bend it once — it’s okay. But if you keep bending it back and forth, it eventually breaks.” Of particular concern are concrete high-rises built prior to the mid 1970s, when critical seismic additions were made to the building code. Areas with loose soils, including English Bay, are especially vulnerable. “Everything near the water is usually more sensitive to shaking than areas farther inland.”

Bridges, often imagined as our weakest seismic link, stand up admirably to the shaking, swaying violently but not buckling thanks to extensive retrofitting. But along the approaches to the Lions Gate, Second Narrows, and other spans, prolonged shaking causes the road bed to settle, precipitating a transit nightmare. “If the road settles a metre before you get to the bridge, you obviously can’t access it,” Ventura explains. “It hasn’t collapsed, but it’s not usable either.”

As shaking continues, sandy, wet soils — prevalent all around the Fraser Delta — lose their integrity, a process known as liquefaction. Foundations are undermined; roads and buildings crumble. Drivers inside the 629-metre-long Massey Tunnel, which is sunk up to 22 metres deep in the loose sand and silt of the Fraser River bed, endure a harrowing ride but should emerge safely thanks to seismic fitting completed in 2006. In mountainous areas, especially in North and West Vancouver, landslides barrel through residential neighbourhoods. Elsewhere, however, single-family homes ride out the shaking with minimal damage. “Wood-frame buildings are actually remarkably resilient,” says Ventura, explaining he’s confident weathering the quake in his 1929 heritage home. Chimneys have been known to crash through roofs, however, and homes not bolted to their foundations slip right off, severing utilities, rupturing gas lines, and triggering fires throughout the city.

Shielded from the open ocean, Vancouver will likely be spared a tsunami. (Vancouver Island is a different story: in 20 to 30 minutes, parts of the west coast will be inundated by waves up to 10 metres tall.) But there is still one big question mark: the glass-and-concrete towers that rise up to 62 stories above the downtown peninsula. New structures built in Vancouver are designed to withstand perhaps the worst earthquake that science can imagine: a catastrophic, one-in-2,500-year event. These are among the highest standards anywhere in the world. Yet, as violent shaking goes into the fourth and fifth minutes, even these standards might not suffice.

“All those apartment buildings along the water — I wouldn’t buy a condo in one of those. I wouldn’t even rent one,” says Peter Yanev, an engineer from California who has personally surveyed the aftermath of 45 earthquakes around the globe and co-founded one of the world’s largest earthquake risk engineering firms, San Francisco-based EQE International. In the tight-lipped, buttoned-down world of earthquake consultants, Yanev is something of an iconoclast. Over the years, he’s developed a reputation for speaking out about cozy relationships between developers and engineers, and for censuring suspect buildings, from trendy offices in Silicon Valley to high-end towers in Chile and new developments in Seattle.

Among Yanev’s greatest concerns in Vancouver are new residential high-rises: “pop-up” towers with catchy names and chic sales offices. “You had this huge infusion of Asian money a few years ago. They couldn’t care less about earthquakes,” he says. “The pressure is to keep the cost down.” He points out that much of the damage in the 2010 Chile quake, which claimed more than 500 lives and destroyed nearly 400,000 buildings, was suffered by newer high-rises. To reduce costs, engineers had designed buildings with fewer, thinner shear walls — the internal concrete bracing that resists shaking. Many new high-rises in Vancouver and across North America are built to similar standards. “Vancouver has never suffered a major earthquake, and that’s unfortunate because the level of concern is not there,” Yanev says. “I have a feeling that after the next big earthquake, when we have a couple of high-rises come down, we’re going to finally adopt higher standards.” Even if the city’s high-rises do manage to ride out the shaking, broken glass and falling debris constitute a major hazard, raining down with lethal force on the streets below.

When the shaking finally does stop, cities and towns up and down the west coast of North America are in ruins. A 2005 report by the Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup, a team of leading scientists and government officials on both sides of the border, predicts “unprecedented damage and potentially thousands of casualties.” Though relatively few buildings collapse, non-structural internal damage — falling furniture, piping, heating and air conditioning ducts, even desktop computers — has caused widespread casualties. Help is slow to arrive. Firefighters, police, and rescuers are utterly overwhelmed; roads are impassible; there is no electricity or phone service. Neighbours are left to rescue neighbours, while coworkers administer first aid as best they can. Or at least that’s the hope. “We really don’t know what the public’s response or capacity will be,” says Kevin Wallinger, director of emergency management for the City of Vancouver. “You see in other countries — for instance, countries in Europe that have gone through two world wars — that generally the public and the culture is resilient. We haven’t had to go through those types of crisis events.”

As aftershocks continue to rumble, thousands spend the first night camped outdoors, cooking what they can on gas barbecues. In the days ahead, shock gives way to desperation. There’s still no electricity. Broken pipelines mean limited or no sewer, water, or natural gas service. Transit is a nightmare. Highway 99, the tenuous thread that links Vancouver with Whistler and communities to the south, has been severed in dozens of places. Bridge and tunnel damage and landslides isolate entire communities, possibly for weeks. Meanwhile, building inspectors condemn unsafe homes by the hundreds, herding residents into swamped community shelters with limited resources. The few stores that manage to reopen after the quake sell out of food, water, and basic supplies in hours.

Worse still, Vancouver itself is effectively cut off from the rest of North America. Cracked runways may render airports inoperable for days or weeks. Damage to docks disrupts ferry service throughout southwestern B.C.; ports spared destruction can’t be used until shipping lanes are resurveyed. Aftershocks by the hundreds go on for months as tectonic plates settle into an uneasy new equilibrium, hampering one of the largest recovery efforts in recent history. Even with support from government and aid agencies around the world, it takes weeks, if not months, just to restore basic communication, water, and transportation infrastructure. In the meantime, thousands are left homeless, businesses remain closed, basic public services from education to health care are suspended or curtailed, and local industry and commerce — timber, mining, fishing, tourism — grind to a near halt. It will likely be years, perhaps decades, before the region comes to resemble its former self.

So far, no reliable estimates exist of the total number of casualties or extent of damage expected in Vancouver. Experts do agree on one point, however: What we do — or fail to do — between now and when the shaking starts will mean the difference between disruption and utter devastation.

 

ON A COLD Monday afternoon earlier this year, the halls of 98-year-old Lord Kitchener Elementary in the Dunbar neighbourhood are empty. The 510 K-7 students who spend the day here have just gone home. I’m led up flights of creaking stairs and across well-worn institutional linoleum by John Murnane, manager of facilities for the Vancouver School Board. Trained in architecture, with close-cut grey hair and the hint of an Irish accent, Murnane walks briskly and with purpose, angled slightly forward as if into a stiff breeze. “Nobody knew when they were building these schools that earthquakes were a consideration,” he says, as we poke into a third-floor classroom where chairs are stacked neatly on desks and cutouts of snowflakes hang in the windows.

Murnane has just given me the gloom-and-doom tour, pointing out the same brittle clay masonry blocks, deadly brick façades, and other earthquake hazards I’ve been shown elsewhere. Now, he throws open an emergency door. Behind Lord Kitchener, the concrete shell of a brand-new school is rising. Bundled-up tradesmen in hard hats and fluorescent vests are putting finishing touches on the new gym’s shear walls. “If you only knew the amount of concrete and steel going in there. Most people wouldn’t believe it,” he says.

Lord Kitchener is among the latest of the school board’s facilities to undergo a seismic update. So far, 30 schools have been completed (26 restorations and 4 teardowns), part of a larger $1.5 billion program initiated in 2005 by the Ministry of Education to seismically upgrade roughly 750 schools in B.C. Province-wide, 112 seismic projects have been completed in 37 districts at a cost of $580 million. (Some of these projects began as early as 2001.) “It’s hard to think of something of that scale happening around the world,” says Paul Kovacs, executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, a group of more than 30 scientists based at the University of Western Ontario that researches disaster scenarios for insurers, as well as government agencies. “It’s very positive and shows that Vancouver is working on earthquake preparedness.”

Yet Vancouver alone still has more than 40 high-risk schools awaiting retrofits. And the school program is largely an exception in an otherwise spotty seismic record. As early as 1997, a report from the auditor general of British Columbia chastised the province for deficient seismic retrofitting, inadequate emergency response planning, and high public apathy, among other woes. Fifteen years later, many of those concerns are still unaddressed.

Retrofitting older, privately owned buildings remains a low priority. “The simple explanation for that is it’s expensive,” says Kovacs. Seismically upgrading a building can cost more than tearing it down and replacing it. Furthermore, Vancouver still lacks updated earthquake scenarios: comprehensive studies outlining the likely impact of a megaquake on people and infrastructure. In places like California, these scenarios have proven critical to effective emergency response.

“There’s just no way for us to know the level of disruption,” says Wallinger, who with a staff of six handles everything from apartment fires to earthquakes at the city’s office of emergency management. “We don’t have a clear picture of what and where the damage will be.” He is careful to point out, however, that the city has invested $107 million in seismic infrastructure since 1990, including a $54 million quake-resistant fire-fighting system that can pump seawater from False Creek and Coal Harbour. Twenty-seven shipping containers of emergency supplies have been pre-positioned at community centres, and the city is now home to a 99-member heavy urban search and rescue team.

Still, in spite of recent initiatives like ShakeOut BC, which saw 530,000 British Columbians participate in the largest earthquake drill in Canadian history, public awareness remains dangerously low. The biggest threat in an earthquake, it turns out, is us. “We’re all in general agreement that the public is not as prepared as it should be,” Wallinger says. “The city is not going to be delivering food and water door-to-door. We’re not going to be taking stranded commuters back to Surrey. I honestly think a lot of people haven’t taken this seriously.”

Bonnie Maples feels the same way. On a recent afternoon, the lobby of St. Paul’s Hospital in downtown Vancouver is characteristically busy. Attendants in blue scrubs wheel patients on stretchers through the narrow main hall, squeezing past doctors, dazed relatives, and lookie-loos outside the gift shop. “This is nothing,” says Maples, director of capital assets at Providence Health Care, which operates the hospital. “You should have seen us after the riots.” An architect and past president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, Maples is responsible for keeping tabs on the six buildings at St. Paul’s, some dating back more than a century. Few are expected to survive a megathrust quake.

“When the judge looks me in the eye and says, ‘Did you warn them it would fall down?’ I’m going to say ‘Yup,’ ” says Maples. Middle-aged and wearing a snazzy plum-coloured pantsuit with matching purple-rimmed glasses, Maples is both unusually candid and genuinely fearful. She confesses her biggest concern is the structure we’re in now — the stately 1912 Burrard Building, which houses downtown’s only emergency ward. “This building is only at 10 to 20 percent of current seismic standards,” she says. “And that’s according to the Ministry of Health’s own report.” Since at least the late 1970s, engineers have been pushing for upgrades to St. Paul’s, Maples says. The provincial government rejected a 2010 plan to move to a new $1.2 billion facility on Station Street near the east end of False Creek. Providence has since put forward a $450-$610 million renewal plan for the existing site that includes extensive seismic retrofitting. No action on the plan has been taken by the province, and no time frame for repairs is in place.

“It boggles my mind that there’s not more priority for this,” says Spencer Chandra Herbert, MLA for Vancouver-West End, who has pressed for improvements at the hospital. “The cost to redo St. Paul’s is roughly the same cost as putting the roof on BC Place. There’s absolutely something wrong with this picture.”

As the intercom peals off a code blue, Maples gives me the grand tour, running through a catalogue of seismic problems: the emergency ward itself, likely to be sandwiched by the six floors above it; the brick façade, which can crumble right off, showering the streets with rubble; not to mention the interior walls, made of clay blocks prone to shaking loose and crushing patients and staff. “Of course, the bigger problem is we are the downtown hospital,” Maples explains. “If we’re not functional, and the bridges are out, where else are people going to go?” At this point in the tour, she unexpectedly removes her left shoe, grips it in her hand, and takes two quick whacks at the wall. The heel goes right through an exposed clay block. “It’s like a terra cotta pot,” she says. “That’s what’s holding this place up.”

 

This story was first published in the April 2012 issue of the magazine

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