Getting ready for The Big One
Dave Jones got call last week from a New Westminster day care wanting to know if the city’s emergency management manager could arrange for a presentation on what to do in case a natural disaster.
Considering what happened a couple of days later he may be busy fulfilling similar requests.
A 7.7 magnitude earthquake off British Columbia’s west coast underneath Haida Gwaii struck just after 8 p.m. Saturday.
The quake has many in Metro Vancouver wondering when ‘The Big One’ is going to strike.
The last biggie was off Vancouver Island on Jan. 26, 1700 with an estimated magnitude of 8.7 to 9.2. Jones said quakes that strong are supposed to happen every 500 years.
“Luck has got certain things to do with it. You never know,” said Jones of the area’s odds of being struck soon. “All the response agencies [at all levels] are always in that forward leaning posture with all the supporting agencies behind them.”
Jones said in recent years there have been many events that have focused the importance on being prepared for the province and municipalities like New Westminster.
“After the Olympics, emergency planning has certainly done a lot more,” he said.
Last year’s quake in Japan and the one in 2004 that caused huge tsunamis in Thailand also raised the awareness.
There’s been a great deal of training, public education and comprehensive planning both internally and with other governing bodies.
But will it be enough? That question won’t be answered until disaster hits.
“With the big earthquake all bets are off whether you’re prepared enough or not,” said Jones. “The city is in a really good situation [but] I can’t predict how things will unfold.”
So much depends on where and when.
If the epicentre is in the Juan de Fuca fault where the 1700 Cascadia quake hit, then this area could be in deep do-do. However, if it’s way below the surface, like Saturday’s quake which had a high magnitude but with no major damage, it might not be as bad as feared.
Jones noted New Zealand had a 7.1 magnitude earthquake on Sept. 4, 2010 that occurred when most people were in bed.
There was damage to the region but no one died.
Six months later, a quake not as strong, 6.3, but shallower hit the area during the lunch hour killing 185. More than half of them died in one office building that collapsed and caught on fire. He said an earthquake at night also means there’s less panic because families are together and frantic attempts at communication are reduced.
He pointed out, however, the fear factor is increased these days because society has become so dependent on instant communication and electrical power.
“We rely on a lot of things in this day and age,” said Jones. “The landscape has changed in good ways and bad ways.”
The good ways include building codes being completely changed and more people who are better trained to handle emergencies.
New Westminster is Greater Vancouver’s oldest community, which may make many of its structures vulnerable, although it’s hard to tell.
“There’s some buildings that are obviously that are of a different composition,” said Jones. “Depending on the type of earthquake, I can’t predict how it’s going to unfold of course, but certain buildings have better characteristics to withstand an earthquake than others.”
In the last decade, the provincial government began a program to seismically upgrade schools. While 143 projects have been completed or are underway, New Westminster has yet to be included. A Ministry of Education website cites only New Westminster secondary and John Robson elementary as having plans to be upgraded only because they are scheduled to be replaced.
Jones said the city is more than willing to do public presentations on preparedness. The city’s website, www.newwestcity.ca, not only allows anybody to sign up for one, but also provides a great deal of information as well as provincial and federal government links that deal with many different kinds of emergencies.