- - Monday, December 24, 2012

CALGARY, Alberta — After Canada’s largest earthquake in more than 60 years struck off British Columbia on Oct. 27, many residents complained that the provincial government failed to issue a timely tsunami warning.

Authorities waited for more than 40 minutes after U.S. authorities registered the quake at magnitude 7.8 — the size of the one that leveled San Francisco 106 years ago.

During that delay, a killer tidal wave could have swamped Vancouver Island, with 760,000 people living near sea level just off the Canadian mainland.

One provincial government official, when pressed about the reasons for the delay, told a reporter:

“The earthquake was your warning.”

Many West Coast Canadians, appalled by the government’s response, are urging action to prepare for the “Big One,” which scientists predict could hit populated areas such as Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, and threaten about 8 million people.

When many North Americans think of disaster-prone areas, they still tend to look at Japan, California, Florida or the Gulf of Mexico — but not the Pacific Northwest, even though it has been hit with major tremors throughout history from Alaska down to Northern California.

“It’s definitely a hot spot,” said John Clague, a professor at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University and director of its research center on natural hazards.

“The focus has traditionally been on California. But there’s been 10 or so damaging earthquakes, magnitude 6 or 7 plus, in the Pacific Northwest, just over the last 160 years.”

Earthquakes of that strength can cause buildings to shake violently and kill as many as 25,000 people at the epicenter.

The latest Canadian temblor created little damage, despite its size and location over a major earthquake fault. The earthquake struck about 450 miles north of Vancouver Island off the coast of the Haida Gwaii archipelago.

“We really dodged a bullet this time,” Mr. Clague said. “That earthquake was huge.”

British Columbia’s emergency management agency is upgrading its warning system to pass along alerts immediately from the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center to local officials, major media outlets, and first responders.

The agency said it also will use social media and email to warn people. It has created a mobile version of its website for smartphones and is developing an interactive map of tsunami warning zones.

Mr. Clague, who often advises federal politicians and local engineers on disaster preparations, said he is concerned that many officials and the public are ill-prepared for worst-case scenario.

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