Could B.C. deal with an earthquake as strong as the one that hit Chile?
WATCH ABOVE: Coastal residents of Chile’s far-north spent a second sleepless night outside their homes on Thursday after a major aftershock rattled an area.
VANCOUVER – This week’s magnitude-8.2 earthquake off the coast of Chile is a reminder of how easy British Columbia has gotten off when it comes to destructive earthquakes.
For a province that sits on such an active seismic zone, B.C. is lucky not to have been hit with a major, damage causing quake since the deadly magnitude-7.3 Vancouver Island earthquake in 1946.
That’s a bit of mixed blessing as far as being prepared for “the big one,” according to an earthquake engineering expert at the University of British Columbia.
Carlos Ventura, Director of UBC’s Earthquake Engineering Research Facility, said most buildings are now properly designed to endure earthquakes, and many of the structures that weren’t built to meet current standards have been or are planned to be retrofitted.
“As more of these big earthquakes happen around the world, we learn more and that forces us to improve or change some of our design provisions we have in the [building] code,” Ventura told Global News.
He explained B.C. has one of the “best building codes in the world.”
But unlike Chile – or Japan and New Zealand, which have both suffered devastating quakes in the past three or so years – buildings and infrastructure in B.C. cities haven’t endured the shaking of a magnitude-8.0 or higher quake.
“It’s good for us that we don’t have those here, in terms of society,” Ventura said. “But for science and for us to learn more, it’s not good.”
He said the stronger quakes B.C. has experienced in the last while – the most significant being a magnitude 7.7 earthquake off Haida Gwaii in Oct. 2012 – happened much farther north and aren’t often felt in more populated centres such as Vancouver and Victoria.
Experiencing frequent seismic activity prepares people for when a stronger tremor hits.
“That allows the population to be more aware of what to do. It’s like getting regular training from the shake that they have on a regular basis,” Ventura said.
What concerns Ventura about major quake hitting B.C. is the buildings that were built in the 1970 or earlier.
“Those are likely to suffer damage. I’m not saying they’re will collapse, but they are buildings that are likely to suffer damage and not be habitable,” he explained.
Since 2001 the B.C. government has spent or committed $2.2 billion to retrofit older buildings such as public schools. That isn’t happening quickly enough, Ventura said.
Of the 317 schools the province has since identified as needing structural upgrades under the Seismic Mitigation Program, only 140 have been fully completed.
Ventura added it’s not just structural stability that saves lives. He said earthquake education and training is just as important, if not more so.
Chile has been praised this week for being able to react quickly to the potential threat caused by the quake and the tsunami it triggered. There were only six fatalities and emergency officials acted swiftly to evacuate about 928,000 people when the tsunami warning was in effect.
The country learned from 2010’s magnitude-8.8 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, when more than 500 people died.
If Tuesday night’s quake had struck off B.C., rather than Chile, the province might not have been ready.
B.C. Auditor General Russ Jones released a report last week looking into the province’s preparedness for a major quake. He found Emergency Measures B.C. hasn’t gotten much better in 17 years.
“It’s everybody’s responsibility, not just the government’s, to ensure that you’re ready,” Jones told Global News in a phone interview Thursday.
Residents of B.C.’s more populated areas haven’t really experienced any major seismic activity, Jones wrote. That has “led to public apathy and a lack of urgency for decision-makers.”
“Given the human casualties and economic impact suffered from other jurisdictions in recent years, this complacency is worrisome and unwarranted.”
Jones’ report also noted it’s unclear what actions the province’s justice minister, who oversees the emergency management body, can take in an emergency. The minister would need to know when and how to declare a state of emergency, to order evacuations or initiate other emergency response measures.
“The do have the information, they just need to have it pulled together that will be very simple for the minister to follow through on,” Jones said.
The province says it is taking “immediate action” on the report’s recommendations, a ministry spokesperson said in an email, and is beginning a “consultation and public education process to better understand the benchmarks of what we have prepared, what more needs to be done, how much we understand the risks and how much we’ve prepared to respond to them all across the province.”
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