This weekend’s warm-up natural disaster, a 7.7-magnitude earthquake west of the Queen Charlotte Islands, should but won’t serve as a vital wake-up call to the federal and provincial governments: British Columbia is in an extremely hazardous position geologically, and it is only a matter of time — on geological timescales, a very short time — before an extremely large earthquake occurs closer to a major population centre, very likely followed by a tsunami which will inundate major coastal communities. This one was neither close to Vancouver, nor of the sort that would cause a tsunami. Eventually we won’t be so lucky on either count.
The Globe & Mail has started asking questions, but in a slapdash sort of way. I’ll try and pick up the slack, but before I do that, I need to point something out: all shortcomings in the B.C. government’s disastrously inept response to this fortunate non-event are the fault of the Globe & Mail itself. Them, and all the rest of the far-right, anti-government crowd that controls most of the newspapers and governments in this country. You wanted a small government? Well, you got one. All of a sudden you want a big, omni-present government to take care of you when things go wrong. Tough luck.
The Globe has, to its credit, pointed to one obvious problem with the B.C. natural disaster plan, which — judging from this weekend, anyways — centers on getting the word out to residents via Twitter. Well, that’s brilliant. It works on the obviously solid assumption that if there is a major earthquake that decimates Vancouver and Victoria, not only the general public but also the civil servants running the provincial emergency program will still have Internet access.
Another problem is that the government obviously lacks the capability to warn local communities of an incoming tsunami. The Globe apparently was unable to talk to any community governments closer than Tofino, but the fact remains: according to them, at any rate, it took the provincial emergency program three hours to hold a tele-briefing with local emergency officials. That’s one hour after the waves from the earthquake reached Tofino. I remember us criticizing Indonesia a few years ago for not having an adequate tsunami warning system in place. First World countries do things differently, we were assured.
Which makes the media coverage all the more disturbing. The Globe article implies that things were basically hunky-dory because in places like Tofino everyone heard the alarms and moved to high ground. That’s good for the 2000 residents of Tofino. Less good for the few thousand extra tourists who would have been there if this happened two months ago, frantically trying to drive up and down the highway in search of high ground. Even less good if Vancouver and Victoria, rather than Tofino and the Queen Charlottes, are in the danger zone.
Plus, depending on where it is, of course, probably the main threat to Vancouver and Victoria will be the earthquake itself, not the tsunami, and this is where things go from worrying to catastrophic. The government of Richmond, much of will be basically written off in the event of a major earthquake, has an earthquake info page with a subheading that is apparently supposed to be reassuring, but comes off more as cavalier: “liquefaction may occur, but Richmond won’t slide into the ocean.” How very reassuring.
Which leads to the obvious question: what happens when a disaster actually happens? A major earthquake, with or without a tsunami? I must stress again, this is a disaster which we know with absolute certainty is going to happen, thanks to modern geology — the sort of science-y hogwash under sustained attack from influential creationists like Canada’s current Science Minister. It may or may not happen tomorrow; it could happen 50 years from now, or 100 years from now. Predicting earthquakes is even harder than predicting storms, which is why usually only Stalinist dictatorships jail scientists for failing to prevent them.
The answer to my question above is, sadly, probably, quite simple: complete and utter pandemonium.
I suspect this because I’ve read some documents connected to the emergency services plan for the province. Here’s one version. It begins by explaining that “local authorities are responsible” for planning for and responding to natural disasters. Once a disaster happens, if they realize that their local resources are insufficient to cope with it, then they contact the provincial emergency operations centre and request additional resources. This coordination happens after the fact. Apparently the provincial government feels that working out how to coordinate disaster relief across different regions and municipalities is something most easily worked out after a disaster happens, rather than before it happens. In the meantime, local communities are basically left to freelance their own earthquake response planning.
Other problems abound. For instance, the emergency services “field guide” refers readers to a non-existent “Appendix 4″ for information on how “Mass Feeding” will be coordinated across the province by the Salvation Army and by the Buddhist Compassion Relief Foundation. With all due respect to both of these organizations and their members, who are without exception extremely dedicated and caring individuals, how will they do that? A listing of what I assume are the contents of the elusive Appendix 4 can be found here, where the Buddhist foundation’s role is a single cheerful sentence declaring their “intention and goal” to “provide… essential materials or emergency financial aid to those needy victims.” But unless these food supplies are already all stockpiled locally — which isn’t impossible, but seems unlikely — then they might not be much help in a major emergency, would they? And with all due respect to the Buddhists, I think their financial aid will not last long either.
Which leads into a million more questions, none of them comforting ones. How will the food be brought to, say, small coastal and Vancouver Island communities? Will the ferries be running? How long is Vancouver Island going to be effectively isolated? Is there even an alternate meeting site for the legislature yet (since the government building is probably going to be a pile of rubble)? What happens in Vancouver? Given limited emergency resources flowing in from outside, which cities and regions get prioritized, and which small coastal towns get written off and told to tough it out?
A great deal of energy has been put into these questions, especially by local volunteers. But the reality is that B.C.’s government centre and major urban centre are both located squarely in the potential disaster zone. Its provincial emergency staff is apparently stretching the limits of their capabilities handling call-outs for an isolated and relatively insignificant earthquake off the Queen Charlottes. There are as many actual earthquake response plans as there are municipal governments, and the job of coordinating and prioritizing between these various plans is — at least from the public documents — largely being left until after the earthquake happens, at which time, the government reasons, stress levels will be lowest, people will be most willing to cooperate, and there will be the most time available to calmly and rationally game out scenarios. Above all, all of these things are being discussed outside of the public forum, which means that even if everything does go smoothly in the emergency services organizations, which seems fantastically unlikely, there will still be mass confusion and quite likely mass panic.
And all of this is just the short-term mitigation plans. As things stand, thousands of people will die, and the costs of rescue services, lost assets, and reconstruction will start in the tens of billions of dollars, and rapidly scale up from there. These costs, in lives and dollars, obviously are intolerably high. But do you want to look for a single major newspaper, let alone a government, willing to make the obvious point that some very densely populated parts of the Pacific coast simply are not safe for human habitation, and to move on from that basically incontestable fact to the obvious policy prescription which follows?Tweet