C.Anada’s largest port will be closed. Highways have caved in, kinked and crumbled. Bridges wash into raging rivers and landslides rumble down mountainsides, bury cars and strand travelers. Railroad lines connecting the west coast with the rest of North America have been damaged. Oil pipelines cease operations.
Three years ago, officials at Vancouver’s major transportation hubs were told to prepare for a scenario in which nearly 3 million people in southwest British Columbia would be cut off from the rest of the country.
Those warnings became a reality in mid-November when the region was hit by record rainfall, flooding and landslides. But at their meeting, officials had rallied to plan a far more devastating disaster: a powerful earthquake known as the Great, which has long been predicted to hit the region.
The widespread destruction from the floods has highlighted the vulnerability of the region’s infrastructure, but experts warn that if the province does not learn from the current crisis, it will face larger, deadlier and more costly disasters in the future.
Geologists say that in the coming years a massive earthquake will almost certainly hit southwest British Columbia, with a probability of up to 30% in the next half century. The residents have long feared the Big One, a break in the Cascadia subduction zone far from the coast that will trigger a tsunami and cause widespread destruction. Up to 10,000 people could die in southern British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Fires alone could wreak $ 10 billion in damage. Water pipes are cut. First responders might not even be able to leave their wards.
The last major quake in the region – the Cascadia mega-shock in 1700 – was strong enough to feel its effects across the entire Pacific Ocean in Japan.
But the Cascadia plate boundary has been “incredibly calm” for many years, said Edwin Nissen, a seismologist at the University of Victoria. “Most of the people here have probably never felt an earthquake in their life. And so they are a bit disconnected from what could happen. “
Even a smaller quake could prove disastrous if it hits closer to an urban center.
“The danger is that a city could hit the mark,” said Nissen, referring to the 2011 Christchurch, New Zealand quake, the effects of which can still be seen a decade later. “A localized quake could be even more devastating than the big one.”
However, experts also say the recent floods in the province have given the region a rare glimpse into its fragility – and a chance to fix it.
“People don’t understand the importance of critical infrastructure until you see a flaw in it,” said Jean Slick, director of the civil protection program at Royal Roads University in Victoria. “When they are in our own backyard, we have the opportunity to understand the threat in a completely different way.”
British Columbia officials have been criticized for never activating the mobile emergency alert system, despite it becoming clear that days of heavy rain would wreak havoc on communities. There is now evidence that the province knew that its dyke system, which failed, was not up to standard. Residents displaced from flooded areas reported days of confusion in finding shelter.
British Columbia remains in a state of emergency a month after the floods. At least one major highway system will take months to fully repair and thousands have lost their homes. Landscapes have changed and the route of at least one large river has changed.
But as the province begins the difficult cleanup and reconstruction work, experts hope the floods will also help the public understand the risks posed by urban planning decisions.
“When the Prime Minister and Ministers say this is a natural disaster, we think back to how nature did this to us. But there are no natural disasters. Flooding is a natural hazard. We build and live and work in floodplains. We are the ones who create disaster risk, ”she said. “The question is, how do we live with risks?”
Slick, who served as technical advisor on the BC Auditor General’s report on provincial earthquake preparedness, says recent events have had a “focusing” effect on how people understand natural hazards and risks. Empty store shelves and panic buying from the pandemic and flooding have exposed the cost of ignoring warnings and the importance of preparing for future crises.
“When we rebuild, we shouldn’t put on blinkers and just concentrate on floods. Let’s make sure we consider all hazards like climate risks and earthquakes, ”she said.
But rebuilding is often accompanied by a desire to return to normal as soon as possible.
“The reconstruction will be urgent, and [there’s pressure] To do things the way they were before, ”said Glenn McGillivary, executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. “But is anyone going to stop and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, why don’t we make this thing better so we don’t do it again in two years?”
Even simple changes can lead to huge advantages. While one of the provincial gas utilities is upgrading its metering system, McGillivary and others have called for seismic barriers to be installed on every pipeline, as is common in Japan, to prevent fires after an earthquake.
But previous studies suggest that British Columbia is unprepared for a big tremor.
“We know there’s going to be a big earthquake, but we’re not as well prepared as we should be. And scientists say that due to climate change, atmospheric rivers would get much stronger and floods would get much worse, ”said Nissen.
“The next big earthquake could be 100 years away. That’s not even in our lifetime. It almost feels hypothetical, ”he said. “The cost of doing something is astronomical. But the cost of doing nothing is worse. “