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Quake jolted Canadians from complacency

- - 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.

"We should learn from this wake-up call, but it was a test case of how we haven't learned the system yet," he said.

Officials gave bad advice

Many Canadian officials gave bad advice after the Haida Gwaii quake.

They told fishermen to return to port -- where waves could have toppled their boats and destroyed ports -- instead of telling them to sail farther out to sea where they would have been safer. Many Japanese fishermen stayed far offshore during the massive tsunami last year that devastated vast areas of the country.

Japanese scientists warn that even 3-foot-high tsunamis can wipe out towns and kill people who fall into rushing waters.

Few Canadian officials advised people to turn off gas lines or disconnect propane tanks, despite the danger posed by explosions during earthquakes. Thousands of Japanese died from exploding gas canisters, fuel stations and chemical factories last year and in earthquakes in 1995 in Kobe and 1923 in Tokyo.

Despite the weakness of the official response, Canadians today are more aware of the dangers of living on or near fault lines.

Mr. Clague said provincial governments in Canada have reinforced and braced critical infrastructure in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, and in Vancouver.

The British Columbia hydroelectric company is upgrading dams on Vancouver Island. A grass-roots campaign led officials to upgrade more than 100 older schools in the Vancouver area, and Simon Fraser University is performing a costly seismic upgrade to a gymnasium on campus.

Mr. Clague said architects are designing high-rise buildings with better quake resistance.

He gained a better understanding of the damage earthquakes can cause after he visited Kobe, Japan, where the magnitude 7.1 temblor killed more than 5,000 people, tilted skyscrapers and destroyed more than 110,000 homes.

"I came back with a heightened appreciation for the longer term impacts of an earthquake. Kobe and Vancouver are both beautiful cities in seismically active areas," he said.

"If it happened there, it could happen here. It could totally alter Vancouver in the long term, and not necessarily for the better."

Sleepwalking toward disaster

He said a Kobe-scale quake in Vancouver could damage the city's airport and major ferry terminal, the densely populated downtown and crucial port areas.

Scientists see a 25 percent chance that a big quake could hit Vancouver within the next 30 years.

Mr. Clague cited an active fault south of Abbotsford, on Vancouver's sprawling eastern edge, and other potential fault lines in Georgia Strait. An active fault under Seattle, identified about 20 years ago, has produced many temblors stronger than magnitude 7.0.

"Things are being done, but perhaps we are sleepwalking a bit, as far as the public goes. We think that we can't have Atlantic City devastated by a superstorm, but these things can happen," he said.