I’d much rather be in New Zealand than B.C. when a big earthquake strikes

I remember waking up in bed frightened as my condo tower in downtown Vancouver swayed back and forth. Turns out I had just experienced my first earthquake.

The epicentre of that magnitude-4.8 quake on Dec. 29, 2015, was 20 kilometres north of Victoria and did not do much damage. However, scientists estimate there is a one-in-five chance British Columbia will experience a major earthquake in the next 50 years. 

British Columbians live near the Cascadia subduction zone, an area where the Juan de Fuca and North American tectonic plates meet. The problem is that the Juan de Fuca plate is trying to slide underneath the North American one but it has got stuck, locked by friction, and pressure is building on the fault line.

When the plates finally do become unstuck, it will cause something called a “megathrust earthquake,” which can potentially register higher than magnitude 9.0. Only five earthquakes have measured 9.0 or higher since records began.

But, if you are like me, after the 2015 earthquake you probably soon forgot about the “Big One” coming our way.

It wasn’t until moving to Christchurch, New Zealand, that I realized how comparatively unprepared Vancouver is for a large earthquake.

Christchurch was decimated by a series of quakes 10 years ago that killed 185 people. Most of the business district had to be demolished. The shaking from the quake allowed water to come through the layers in the ground, turning it to fluid in a process known as liquefaction.

A staircase remains from a building that fell during the Christchurch earthquake in 2011. (Submitted by Kristina Jenei)

As a result, an area of Christchurch called “the Red Zone,” where around 10,000 people used to live, is now just destroyed homes. Much of Metro Vancouver, from Richmond to Chilliwack, has the same high risk for liquefaction.

In the four months I have lived in New Zealand during the pandemic, I have experienced three earthquakes — constant reminders that something larger might be around the corner. They were all more intense than the earthquakes I had experienced in B.C. However, I was less scared because I knew I was safe.

They also made me realize that the Earthquake Survival Kit and 17.5-litre jug of water my diligent Kiwi husband bought while in Vancouver was probably the least we should have done. 

Earthquake preparedness is part of the culture in New Zealand. Quakes come up in everyday conversation and every person I know here has an emergency plan, which was definitely not the case in Vancouver. 

When we moved into our new apartment, our landlord provided us with a manual on what to do and where to go if an earthquake should strike.

An earthquake manual was provided by the landlord when Canadian public health researcher Kristina Jenei moved into her home in New Zealand. (Submitted by Kristina Jenei)

To cope with the anxiety and fear from earthquakes, kids study a book in school called The Worry Bug. There’s an app widely used by New Zealanders that shows if shaking has been reported anywhere in the country.

There’s a similar website in B.C., but the first time I came across it was when I was researching this article. 

But probably the most notable difference is New Zealand’s system to ensure buildings are up to current seismic standards. Local councils take an active and preventative role to identify earthquake-prone buildings based on national seismic risk and pre-specified criteria such as unreinforced masonry and towers built prior to 1976.

Building owners, engineering firms and local councils work collaboratively to strengthen or demolish buildings that are deemed unsafe. 

Now picture the opposite of this: Vancouver. A recent study from the University of British Columbia found that tall buildings constructed before 1990 were most at risk in a major earthquake. There’s a lot of those in the city, especially in the West End and Downtown Eastside. 

The law mandating seismic upgrades in B.C. is unclear. Certain schools and older buildings are regularly being  upgraded but the decision seems to be at the discretion of the building owners, unlike New Zealand, where there are clear national building codes and continuous management and identification of earthquake-prone buildings.

As a public health researcher and former registered nurse, I see this as a public health issue that is preventable. Yet little has been done.

The results of The Big One will be catastrophic. There will be acute injuries and deaths from the estimated 150 buildings that will collapse on us. Sewage and water systems could fail. Overcrowding will lead to communicable diseases. Our hospitals will be overwhelmed: regular services will be interrupted, staff won’t be able to access facilities and medical supplies could run out.

As with other crises, the hardest hit will likely be the most vulnerable, such as those housed in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels in the Downtown Eastside.

According to the 1994 “Declan study,” 98 of the city’s 171 designated SROs were given very poor seismic ratings. Twenty years later, a followup by Postmedia News found most of those buildings had still not been upgraded. And it’s not just the DTES. Postmedia’s examination discovered hundreds of the city’s buildings identified as seismic hazards in 1994 lacked upgrades, effectively putting thousands of people at extreme risk. 

Earthquake risk as mapped by the City of Vancouver. (City of Vancouver )

If you are now as scared as I am, know that there are things we can do now to minimize our risk. Individually, we can have a plan and emergency equipment.

But most importantly, we can push our city to take concrete steps to retrofit buildings that do not meet current standards — similar to what Los Angeles did. We can use the opportunity of next year’s municipal elections to ensure this is a priority. 

The lessons from around the world are clear: Act now to protect your citizens and avoid preventable disaster.

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