Earthquake rattled northern Vancouver Island. How will Vancouver’s downtown peninsula fare after The Big One?

earthquake seismic graph(Updated) CBC reported that a “moderate” quake shook the northern end of Vancouver Island early Sunday, waking people in their beds as windows rattled and blinds swayed from the tremors (Earthquake rattles northern Vancouver Island, no injuries, August 4, 2013). The 5.5 magnitude quake hit at about 6:20 a.m. about 25 kilometres west of Nootka Island.

Seismic experts wisely seized the moment to remind media and the public to be prepared, as our whole region will be struck some day by a megathrust earthquake. But what about the very design of our cities, structures, and buildings? Are the many towers sprouting up around the region strong enough to withstand a megaquake (e.g., see New BC highrises at risk in major quake)? Do B.C.’s Building Code and municipal regulations stand up to global best practices? What about master plans in the event of a disaster? Consider this specific example.

Downtown peninsula bridges bottlenecks quake risk

A megathrust quake occurs on the West Coast of B.C. every 300 to 500 years, with the last one occurring 313 years ago, in January 1700. The Downtown peninsula is a densely populated area; at busy times, its population can probably swell to 250,000 people (including residents, workers and tourists) or more during special events like parades and fireworks. But five bridge structures serve the peninsula — Lions Gate, Burrard, Granville, and Cambie Bridges, and the Georgia Viaduct — and the only land access is in the eastern portion of the peninsula in the Downtown Eastside. Besides serving the Downtown population, these bridges are critical infrastructure for the entire Metro Vancouver region. 

In event of a minor earthquake, all bridges will be closed for at least several hours until engineers inspect and assess structural damage. In a major earthquake, they could be impassable for weeks or even months. (Let’s watch to see how long it takes to replace the collapsed bridge section over the Skagit River on Washington State I-5 Highway near Mount Vernon.) In addition, the eastern portion of the peninsula has many buildings over 80 years old. Debris from them in a major earthquake is likely to block road access to and from the Downtown peninsula. When the megathrust quake occurs, how will residents, workers, and visitors on the peninsula access emergency and medical care? How will society function? How can the City plan wisely to save lives, reduce damages and costs, mitigate negative effects? These are topics we’d like to pursue in the coming months.

Former director of emergency management Kevin Wallinger was once quoted saying the Downtown peninsula would be evacuated after a big quake. People may wonder what the City really has in mind, with plans to add tens of thousands more residents and workers in the West End and Downtown through more tower construction in the coming years. And perhaps each of the four long-term community plans now underway should be reviewed through the lens of emergency preparedness and response. Citizens should be asking questions.

(Wallinger was later fired abruptly. This CityCaucus April 2012 article about the firing suggests that like many jobs at City Hall, the office of the director of emergency management is affected by political forces.) After the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, Vancouver City Council did hear a few reports from staff about planning and preparedness. The Park Board also discussed these matters.

Meanwhile, back to practical tips on a more manageable level. CBC quoted John Cassidy, an earthquake seismologist with Natural Resources Canada: “We know that energy is being stored for much larger earthquakes in the future…being prepared, knowing what to do, is really important.” The article suggested what to do in an earthquake: During an earthquake, those inside a home or building drop down and crawl under strong furniture, cover head and neck and stay away from windows and shelves with heavy objects. If unable to go under something strong, crouch or flatten yourself against an interior wall. It also said that people outdoors during an earthquake are advised to stay away from power lines, buildings and the shore. Those in vehicles are advised to pull over and stay inside.

Seismic standards are designed to have a building remain standing long enough for people to  evacuate. In a quake above a certain magnitude, one can imagine that electricity and water will be cut off. Even if a building remains structurally sound enough for continued use, imagine life for days, weeks or months without those services — especially if you live above the sixth floor or so. Auxiliary power may run for a little while. But imagine no elevators, no water, no toilets, no air conditioning if you live on the fifteenth floor. Twentieth. Thirtieth. Fortieth. Fiftieth. Sixtieth. Seventieth. Buildings of these heights are slated for Vancouver’s future. Anyone who did the B.C. Lung Association’s annual “Annual Climb the Wall — Stairclimb for Clean Air” climbing 48 storeys, will have an idea what it would be like — every time you needed go outside and come back. What concrete plans do the builders and permitters of these towers have in mind?

How long do we have to prepare for the Big One? It could be minutes. It could be a century. CityHallWatch is interested in an open public dialogue about all the aspects of emergency preparedness and planning in our region. In that context, here are links to extra information:

  • Vancouver’s Neighbourhood Emergency Preparedness Program (free workshops at community centres, online videos, etc.)
  • BC Provincial Emergency Preparedness Programme (PEP)
  • Federal government website about getting prepared (, excellent with plans, kits, tips).
  • National Emergency Preparedness Week is every year in May. The next one is May 10 to 14, 2014.
  • Millions of people worldwide will practice how to Drop, Cover, and Hold On at 10:17 a.m. on October 17* during Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills!British Columbians can join by registering for the 2013 Great British Columbia ShakeOut. Participating is a great way for your family or organization to be prepared to survive and recover quickly from big earthquakes– wherever you live, work, or travel.
  • This article gives an idea of what it’s like a few years after a major earthquake. This is after the 27 Feb 2010 earthquake in Concepción, Chile. The sixth-largest seismic event ever recorded in history. “The 8.8-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami wreaked havoc on the country, killing 525 people and causing billions of dollars worth of damage……”  “The government has undeniably made strong progress in the physical reconstruction, but there is still much to be done before Chile recovers completely from the earthquake. Apart from the thousands of homes that still need to be rebuilt, psychological assistance must also be provided to those living with post-traumatic stress, tourism needs to be revitalized and economies need to be restimulated.” (Three years on: the aftermath of Chile’s devastating earthquake, Santiago Times, 27-Feb-2013)

An extra note about the Skagit River Bridge, as it provides a point of reference. A portion collapsed on May 23, 2013 after a truck struck critical steel supports. A temporary span was opened about a month later, and  new $6.87 million permanent bridge is being constructed over the river. The 58-year-old bridge carries an average of 71,000 vehicles a day. The replacement bridge is expected to be in place in early September. Source: Montreal Gazette, 27 July 2013.

2 thoughts on “Earthquake rattled northern Vancouver Island. How will Vancouver’s downtown peninsula fare after The Big One?

  1. Emergency Preparedness & the lack thereof in Vancouver is disconcerting. City Hall does not appear concerned at all & there appears very little planning in this area. The UDI Directors are a who’s who of Developers….Would they actually listen to citizens? And if their costs to build were to much higher costlier standards? Are there other authorities that govern safety & building code standards in the province or is this limited to City Hall Engineering?

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