The Big One: Floods in Canada show British Columbia is not ready for a powerful earthquake | Earthquake

VSthe biggest port of anada is closed. Highways broke, twisted and collapsed. Bridges are washed away by raging rivers and landslides hurtle down the mountains, burying cars and stranding travelers. Rail lines connecting the west coast to the rest of North America are damaged. The pipelines stop working.

Three years ago, those responsible for Vancouver’s major transportation hubs were ordered to prepare for a scenario in which nearly 3 million people in southwestern British Columbia would be cut off from the rest of the country.

These warnings became a reality in mid-November when the region was hit by record rainfall, flooding and landslides. But at their meeting, officials gathered to plan for a far more devastating disaster: a powerful earthquake, known as the Big One, which has long been predicted to strike the region.

Widespread flood destruction has highlighted the region’s infrastructure vulnerability, but experts warn that if the province does not learn from the current crisis, it will face larger, deadlier and more costly disasters. the future.

Homes and farms have turned into islands after record rainfall in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Photograph: David Pemble / AFP / Getty Images

Geologists say a massive earthquake will almost certainly strike southwestern British Columbia in the coming years, with odds of up to 30% over the next half century. Residents have long feared the Big One, a rupture of the Cascadia Subduction Zone far offshore that will trigger a tsunami and inflict widespread destruction. Up to 10,000 people could die in southern British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. The fires alone could cause up to C $ 10 billion in damage. The water lines will be cut. First responders might even be unable to leave their posts.

The last major earthquake in the region – the Cascadia Mega Thrust in 1700 – was strong enough to have its effects felt across the Pacific in Japan.

But the Cascadia plate boundary has been “eerily calm” for many years, said Edwin Nissen, a seismologist at the University of Victoria. “Most people here probably haven’t felt an earthquake in their lifetime. And so they’re a little out of touch with what might happen.

Even a smaller earthquake could prove catastrophic if it strikes closer to an urban center.

“The danger is that there could be a target in a city,” Nissen said, pointing to the 2011 earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand, the effects of which are still visible a decade later. “A localized earthquake could be far more devastating than the Big One.”

But experts also say recent flooding in the province has given the region a rare glimpse of its fragility – and a chance to address it.

“People don’t realize the importance of critical infrastructure until they see it as a flaw,” said Jean Slick, disaster management program manager at Royal Roads University in Victoria. “When they’re in our own backyard, it gives us the opportunity to understand the threat in a whole different way.”

Officials in British Columbia have come under fire for never activating the mobile emergency alert system even as it became clear that heavy rainy days would have a devastating effect on communities. Meanwhile, evidence suggests the province knew its failed dike system was not up to par. Residents forced to leave flood-ravaged areas detailed days of confusion when searching for shelter.

Abbottsford's houses were uninhabitable.
Abbottsford’s houses were uninhabitable. Photograph: Jennifer Gauthier / Reuters

A month after the floods, British Columbia remains in a state of emergency. Gas is rationed in major coastal towns and at least one major road network will take months to be fully repaired and thousands of people have lost their homes. The landscapes have been altered and the course of at least one great river has changed.

But as the province begins the difficult task of cleaning up and rebuilding, experts hope the flooding will also help the public understand the risks that emerge from planning decisions.

“When the Prime Minister and ministers say this is a natural disaster, we think nature did this to us. But there are no natural disasters. Floods are a natural hazard. We build, live and work in flood plains. We are the ones who create disaster risk, ”she said. “The question is, how do we cope with risk?

Slick, who served as an expert advisor on the BC Auditor General’s report on the province’s earthquake preparedness, says recent events have had a “focusing” effect on how people understand the earthquakes. natural hazards and risks. Empty store shelves and panic buying linked to the pandemic and floods have revealed the costs of ignored warnings and the importance of preparing for future crises.

“When we rebuild, let’s not put blinders on and just focus on the floods. Let’s make sure we take into account all the hazards, like climate risks and earthquakes, ”she said.

But reconstruction is often accompanied by a desire to get back to normal as quickly as possible.

“There is going to be a rush to rebuild, and [there’s pressure] get it back to normal, ”said Glenn McGillivary, executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. “But is somebody going to stop and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, why don’t we build this thing better, then we won’t do it again in two years?’ “

Even simple changes can lead to disproportionate benefits. As one of the province’s natural gas suppliers upgrades its measurement system, McGillivary and others have called for the installation of seismic arresters on every line, as is often the case in Japan. , to prevent fires after an earthquake.

But previous studies suggest that British Columbia is still not prepared for a big shake.

“We know there will be a big earthquake, but we are still not as prepared as we should be. And scientists say atmospheric rivers will get much stronger due to climate change and flooding will get much worse, ”Nissen said.

“The next big earthquake could be in 100 years. It’s not even in our lifetime. It almost seems hypothetical, ”he said. “The cost of doing something is astronomical. But the cost of doing nothing is even worse.


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