​What a Worst-Case Scenario Earthquake Would Look Like in Vancouver

ByTessa VikanderandSarah Berman

We asked some experts what'll go down in the aftermath of a really, really big one.

Illustration by Adam Waito

If you live on the West Coast, you likely already know there's about a 37 percent chance we'll see a massive quake in the next 50 years. Here in Vancouver, we know vaguely that the ground will shake, that glass will shatter, that we should probably have some water and food saved up—but for many of us it's still hard to imagine what the city will feel like in the hours and weeks after the shaking stops. Should we head for high ground? Will our toilets still flush? Hypothetically, where do you take your dead roommate? We reached out to some geological and disaster planning experts to paint a more vivid picture of what to expect in a worst-case scenario earthquake. They told us we could potentially find ourselves camping out of backyards waiting for help that may never come, while as many as 10,000 dead could be stored in the most Canadian place possible: an ice rink.

The first thing to know about Vancouver is that it's actually 100 kilometres from the fault line that has torn open the Pacific Northwest coast roughly every 500 years for the last ten millennia (the last one was in 1700). That means the shaking will be in longer, less violent waves than in Portland or Seattle, and tsunami waves likely won't make it much further than Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island. "For a person on the ground, it would feel as if you were at sea," says John Clague, seismic researcher at Simon Fraser University.

Clague says he's worried about older buildings in the West End, about landslides across the major highways in North Vancouver and Fraser Canyon, and the bridges that haven't been seismically upgraded in over 60 years (shout out to Pattullo bridge that connects New Westminster and Surrey). Low-lying areas like Richmond, Delta, Surrey and White Rock will be most susceptible to liquefaction, which will absorb building foundations like quicksand and damage airport and ferry terminals.

What emergency planners say will actually be more deadly is a lower intensity earthquake right beneath the city. Using a software used by the United States' Federal Emergency Management Association called Hazus, British Columbia has built its worst case scenario around a 7.3 quake that could be as short as 10 to 20 seconds. That scenario predicts resulting fires, floods and collapsed structures will kill 10,000 and injure 128,000. Shifts underground could cause pipes carrying natural gas, water and sewage to break and burst, leaving many of us without power or flushing toilets.

Read More: After the Big One

Christine Callihoo, a volunteer emergency responder, says not to bother calling 911 when the big one hits. "It could be days," she said of response times. "We really need to drill home to folks—you are on your own. We are on our own. We need to act as a collective, as if we were completely unaided, because we will be completely unaided."

Most of us will rush to check in on friends and family. But because phone towers are usually overloaded after a disaster, experts suggest posting updates to social media or sending text messages—which is perhaps an upside for younger generations who find actual phone calls excruciating.

Condo and apartment dwellers take note: "Your backyard may truly become your home," says earthquake safety consultant Lisa Matthew, explaining that structural damage to homes could mean it's unsafe to sleep inside. Vancouver's latest earthquake plan, released earlier this year, breaks the city into six zones, each with an emergency response centre capable of housing thousands of displaced and injured from apartment buildings and condos.

Matthew, along with other earthquake experts recommends we have enough supplies to feed, clothe and bathe ourselves for a week or more. But the majority of residents aren't prepared.

For example, the best place to take a dump could be in a plastic bag or a two-foot deep hole that you dig in your backyard. Or perhaps you'll end up using a communal outhouse that someone will have built at the park down the street. Unless of course you've purchased an emergency earthquake kit that includes a "honey bucket"—a large bucket with a toilet seat that snaps on top, and lined with plastic bags.

Local radio stations will provide updates to the public so experts recommend having a "crank" radio (these have a handle that you wind up to power) and say that a solar charger for our short-lived phone batteries will come in handy.

Laurie Pearce, who sits on the Disaster Psychosocial Services Council of BC, explains that neither the provincial or federal government have a dedicated emergency service they can deploy. It won't be like you see on the news after a disaster in the United States where FEMA and the National Guard arrive on the scene immediately.

Pearce reminds us that Canada's military is small with very little presence in B.C. They'd have to deploy from Alberta and land in Abbotsford where, fingers crossed, the airport tarmacs are still intact.

The Red Cross and Salvation Army will be helping she says, but they won't have enough volunteers to respond to everyone's needs. "The government will not be there to help you. It just cannot be there," says Pearce.

In terms of emergency response, Pearce says coordination is something both the federal and provincial governments will be able to help with, but providing direct services will be up to non-governmental organizations. Basically, we'll be on our own and given how well the city copes with a light snowfall it will be a rough few weeks and months.

"Our (government's) response mechanism is to look at volunteers going to open up reception centres for people that can't go back to their homes. But then after that, there is no real plan."

VICE contacted Public Safety Canada but they declined interview requests.

Callihoo will be ready to spring into action when the big one hits. After making sure her daughters are safe, Callihoo says she'll head to Trout Lake Community Centre. As the leader for Vancouver's Zone C volunteer emergency response team, Callihoo will help set up a check-in centre, command centre, a designated room for young families, a room where people can stay with their pets, and a medical area. According to Vancouver's response plan, the community centre's ice-rink will also serve as a temporary morgue.

Once the muster station is set-up volunteers will start in on the "neighbourhood sweep." Callihoo estimates the sweeps will begin within six hours of the first impact.

During the sweeps, volunteers will go house by house to assess damage and flag homes where people are trapped. "We are there to observe, to listen, to record and report. Really what it does is it saves a number of steps for the EMS (Emergency Medical Services) folks," she says, adding that they'll be able tell firefighters and paramedics what areas are most desperate for help.

Callihoo's team currently has seven people on it, but she imagines needing over 100 people to cover her zone. She's wants to grow her team of pre-trained volunteers, but says day-of volunteers will be welcomed."I'd quickly train them and get their asses out there," she says.

If you're trapped under furniture in your house, you should make sure that people can hear you calling for help. Callihoo says she's been trained not to enter homes because of liability issues, but she'll probably go inside and help people anyway.

At that point, Callihoo says she would put a coloured sticker on the door saying immediate help is needed and then phone 911 to report an injured person.

"'Standby,' is what they would tell us. That's as far as it goes," she says.

If you're sick or dying, it's likely your friends, family or neighbours will be the ones to transport you to your neighbourhood's medical station or a makeshift morgue.

"Most of the people who get brought to hospitals in disasters are not brought by ambulances. They're brought by neighbours and friends and those around them," Pearce says.

Pearce says that in a disaster, communities come together and crime rates actually drop. "Most people do not panic. That's a myth. Most people act purposefully. They check themselves, they check their family and friends...and most people go to help others where they possibly can," she says.

Once the life-or-death emergencies of the first 72 hours slow down, Clague says our attention over the next weeks and months will turn to billions in financial losses. Deltaport, one of western Canada's biggest ports, could be one of the biggest source of losses, putting hundreds of people out of work if out of commission.

"Deltaport is built out on tidal flats of the Fraser River delta—there's a roadway and a rail line that transports bulk cargo out to the edge where the the deep water starts," says Clague. "There's a fair chance in a worst-case earthquake that the terminus would be damaged, and you wouldn't be able to get ships in or out. Until that could be repaired, you have a major problem for economic recovery."

A recent Globe and Mail report found the whole country would feel the economic shockwaves for years to come. "In the extreme [earthquake] scenario that I'm concerned about," CEO Charles Brindamour of one of Canada's biggest property insurance companies told the Globe, "I think that it is not a stretch of the imagination to think that an economic area could lose a decade rebuilding."

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