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Observing a moment of silence on the anniversary of Japan’s 3-11 earthquake at UBC (Photo by Alberto Mendoza Galina)

Preparing for British Columbia’s “Big One”

The record-breaking Japanese earthquake and subsequent devastating tsunami of March 11, 2011, sent a shockwave of sorrow around the world….

The record-breaking Japanese earthquake and subsequent devastating tsunami of March 11, 2011, sent a shockwave of sorrow around the world. But along the west coast of North America, geologists and disaster planning professionals watched with foreboding. They knew that similar scenes could one day play out in their own backyard.

Photo of the moment of silence for Japan on anniversary of 3-11 disasters
Observing a moment of silence on the anniversary of Japan's 3-11 earthquake at UBC (Photo by Alberto Mendoza Galina)

“An earthquake in Japan is an earthquake in British Columbia,” said John Oakley, the province’s emergency manager for the Vancouver area. “They would be very similar.”

The misfortune of the Japanese after the 2011 Tohoku quake could help to save thousands of lives in B.C. — but only if the example and lessons from Japan’s so-called “3-11” disasters are heeded.

In the year that has passed since 3-11, Vancouver-area scientists and disaster planners have been ramping up efforts to prepare the region for a similar catastrophic earthquake.

Most experts say a Tohoku-sized quake will inevitably occur somewhere along the fault that runs from B.C. down to California, but no one can say exactly when. Geological evidence shows a pattern of record-setting earthquakes hitting this side of the Pacific every 300 to 600 years. The last one struck in 1700.

“In Canada, we’ve been very fortunate in that we haven’t had a catastrophic event in living memory,” said Oakley. “We’ve had disasters, but not on the scale that Japan and other countries have gone through. We need to wrestle with that; how will we react as a society to that?”

Catastrophic Kinship

Graphic explaining how a Japanese tsunami was caused by a quake off the BC coast in 1700
The giant earthquake of January 26, 1700, centred just off of the coast of Vancouver Island, caused tsunami damage 8,000 kilometres away in Japan (Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

Although the territories were left blank on colonial maps, hundreds of thousands of First Nations people in what we now call British Columbia felt the effects of the 1700 earthquake.

“There was a great earthquake and all the houses of the Kwakiutl collapsed,” recounted Aboriginal elder La’bid to an anthropologist in 1930. “[Soon after], the tide…rushed up at a fearful speed.”

No written records of the event exist in North America.

However, in the Japanese coastal town of Kuwagasaki, the rush of the sea upended cargo boats, flooded fields and sparked fires, causing chaos in a society that kept meticulous records. The waves struck during the night of Jan. 26, 1700.

Modern-day scientists eventually linked the oral accounts from western North America to the Japanese historical records from along that country’s coast. Dead trees and debris deposited on both sides of the Pacific confirm that the devastating wave that hit Japan was birthed 8,000 kilometres away by a giant earthquake in B.C.

A rift the length of California had split open just off the coast of Vancouver Island, at the Cascadia subduction fault zone, where two large, mobile chunks of the Earth’s crust collide.

The Japanese coast and western North America both share the rare geological configuration that produces ‘mega-thrust’ quakes — the most powerful type. Each region has produced earthquakes that caused tsunamis on the opposite coast more than a dozen times since humans settled along the Pacific Rim.

“We do know that a magnitude 9 earthquake is imminent,” said UBC Earth and Ocean Sciences professor Michael Bostock. “The worst-case scenario is something similar to the [9.0-magnitude Boxing Day earthquake] off Sumatra in 2004.”

Scientists now say there’s a one in 10 chance of a quake the size of Japan’s in the next 50 years. Those odds rise to one in three for a magnitude-8 quake.

Related: To see how geologists make these predictions, explore some of the data they use

As the nature of the threat to the Pacific coast of North America becomes clear, local governments are rushing to prepare for massive earthquakes and tsunamis just like the 3-11 disasters in Japan.

Those efforts received a boost in the past year, a time of invaluable learning for local residents and the officials entrusted with their safety.

Lessons from Tohoku

On 3-11, nearly all of the students of Kamaishi Higashi Junior High School, 200 kilometres north of Sendai, and the neighbouring elementary school escaped to safety before the tsunamis destroyed their schools and 70 per cent of the students’ homes.

Headlines from Japanese newspapers after the 3/11 disasters (Photo by Hayley Dunning)
Headlines from Japanese newspapers describe the 3-11 disasters (Photo by Hayley Dunning)

Hirokazo Tatano, from the Disaster Prevention Research Institute of Kyoto University, recounted these events to a conference marking the anniversary of the Tohoku quake and tsunami. He said thorough and realistic disaster education laid the foundation for the so-called “Kamaishi Miracle.” For eight years, a curriculum produced by Tatano’s colleagues had been taught in Kamaishi schools, reinforced by monthly drills.

“The people of Kamaishi later told journalists, ‘It was something brought about by our routine efforts, and there’s nothing special about it,’” said Tatano. “Our teachers told us, ‘As long as you make a habit of doing the drills properly, when the crucial moment comes you’ll be able to harness extraordinary strength.'”

“It was the result of such activity, not a miracle,” said Tatano.

The story makes very clear the enormous value of the extensive planning and preparation that preceded the 2011 Japanese quake and tsunami.

“We look to Japan as one of the best models around the world for public preparedness,” said Emergency Management B.C.’s Oakley. “We’re not there yet.”

“One of the challenges here is that we don’t share the same kind of cultural memories as in Japan,” said Peter Anderson, who studies pre- and post-disaster communications at Simon Fraser University. “Because we haven’t experienced it personally, it’s more difficult to get people to understand the danger.”

Planning for a huge disaster that could occur at any time in the next 300 years can be off-putting to those holding the purse-strings. But local public-safety and disaster planning officials know that close study of international disasters can increase the efficiency and impact of disaster preparedness, saving money as well as lives.

“We’d rather learn than to go through these catastrophic events like in Japan,” said Oakley. “We’re constantly learning and adapting, but my personal feeling is that we aren’t learning fast enough.”

Planning for the “Big One”

Oakley says major changes in the province’s planning for disaster followed the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. Before that, the 1989 temblor in the San Francisco Bay area highlighted several unexpected dangers that could strike modern cities in North America in seismically active zones.

“That 14-second earthquake opened up a lot of eyes in North America,” said Oakley.

The process of organizational change following these previous international disasters was further intensified in 2011. Regional public-safety officials have put “the Big One,” the worst-case scenario for the Cascadia fault, at the centre of their preparations.

Candles light an altar showing damage from Japan's 3/11 disasters
Candles light an altar at UBC with a display of photos showing damage from Japan's 3-11 disasters (Photo by Hayley Dunning)

“There’s a strong emphasis now on being better prepared for a catastrophic event,” said Ron Holton, the chief risk officer for the University of British Columbia. “We aren’t the only ones who have had that shift in focus; the province of British Columbia and the city of Vancouver have done the same.”

The province has begun a major revision to its Emergency Response Management System, and the Emergency Program Act has been rewritten in the months following the Japanese disasters. Some experts attending the conference marking the anniversary of Japan’s 3-11 quake called for an update to the B.C. building codes and redoubled efforts to seismically retrofit older buildings to cope with a Tohoku-sized quake.

UBC’s Holton feels it’s essential that the university prepare for the worst. If a catastrophic earthquake were to occur at certain peak times, more than 60,000 people would be trapped on campus.

“We need to get real, so to speak,” said Holton. “We’re going to need initial food supplies and drinking water. We have to figure out how to manage volunteers. We’ll have to deal with fighting fires and hazardous waste. We need to secure fuel for the emergency generators.”

“We’ve been told by Metro Vancouver and the city of Vancouver: Don’t expect any help from us,” said Holton. “We are going to be dealing with so much damage in our areas that we won’t be able to spare any help for UBC.”

UBC takes charge of its own fate

Luckily, there’s a long history of emergency preparedness at UBC. But the focus until recently has been on conventional emergencies, not catastrophic disasters, according to Holton.

A public service announcement for Shake Out B.C.
A public service announcement for Shake Out B.C.

Before the Japanese quake, UBC held a campus-wide “Shake Out” drill, anticipating a giant earthquake in the area. The simulation was held on the anniversary of the 1700 Cascadia disaster, to drive home the looming risk.

After the March Tohoku quake, the campus was spurred to hold a second Shake Out event in October, coordinated with schools and municipalities all along the Pacific coast of North America.

Apparently, the repeated drills have helped to prepare the student body. A recent survey found that more than 85 per cent of students knew the best way to react to an earthquake: “Drop, cover and hold on, and wait 60 seconds after shaking stops before leaving the building.”

In addition to the careful study of big earthquakes around the globe, the campus extensively examines their performance during such drills for lessons to learn.

“After the June and October 2011 simulations, we realized we needed to make some changes,” said Holton. “For example, we need to make much greater use of social media, but we also need low-tech means of communication in place.”

Low tech was also the theme of one unexpected discovery among the province’s emergency planners, who ran their own large earthquake simulations after the Japanese quake of 2011.

“One of our saving graces in a large earthquake is that all 22 municipalities in Metro Vancouver are accessible by water,” said the province’s Oakley. “With damage to our roads and bridges like we saw in Japan, the waterways will be critical to moving resources and people.”

“Who knows, maybe we need to build a dock off of UBC that we can use for that,” said Holton, who later emphasized that it was a serious proposition.

Never-ending preparedness

Holton called the campus’ efforts to apply lessons from distant disasters to their current emergency planning and practice a work in progress.

“Some important aspects of it — the awareness campaigns, the exercises, the drills — are never-ending,” he said.

Local disaster planners are also heeding the warnings of those who lived through 3-11 and saw things for which even Japan, with its constant drills, wasn’t prepared.

“We had drills, but the drill is just ‘escape from the building.’ That’s all,” Masashige Motoe, architecture professor at Tohoku University, told attendees the conference marking the 3-11 anniversary. “Everybody was wearing their helmets, they escaped from the buildings and gathered in the streets. But after that, no one knew what to do.”

Even after a serious look at how overseas disasters can inform B.C.’s own preparations, local planners know they’ll run up against the wisdom of the old adage: “You can’t plan for the unexpected.”

“We can do a lot of pre-planning before, but there’s always the surprises,” said Oakley. “This is what we found in Japan. I’ve been in this business a long time, and I have a lot of respect for Mother Nature.”