Worst-case scenario Vancouver earthquake could have death toll of 10,000

 

Inside the grim hypothetical used by provincial planners to prepare for the big one

 
 
 
 
Dayana Hidalgo receives assistance from one of the Neighborhood Emergency Assistance Team members Saturday, August 23, 2015 during the earthquake disaster training scenario.
 
 

Dayana Hidalgo receives assistance from one of the Neighborhood Emergency Assistance Team members Saturday, August 23, 2015 during the earthquake disaster training scenario.

Photograph by: Kim Stallknecht, PNG

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It’s a typically rainy day in January at 2 p.m.

Downtown cores are packed, with businesses in full swing after workers have returned from the holidays.

Then the earthquake hits Vancouver. Most people hear it before they feel it — a low, rumbling sound similar to a freight train. Closest to the epicentre, violent shaking, which lasts 10 to 20 seconds, knocks people off their feet.

Tall buildings sway. Some buildings collapse, and many shift and crack.

The ground ruptures in some areas. There are fires from broken gas lines and flooding from the recent rains increases as some dikes failing.

Windows break and glass falls. Many people who run outside suffer injury or death from falling and flying objects.

Thousands are trapped.

Medical facilities are overwhelmed.

This is the grim picture painted of a hypothetical, worst-case scenario earthquake that hits Vancouver.

The scenario — a shallow earthquake of magnitude 7.3 temblor directly beneath the city — was chosen to provide the basis for drafting an emergency earthquake plan by the province.

Such an earth quake, the plan noted, would be “exceedingly rare.”

In the scenario, 18 per cent of Metro Vancouver buildings are estimated to receive extensive damage, while 12 per cent are most likely to receive catastrophic damage.

The death toll is estimated at nearly 10,000 in Metro Vancouver with more than 128,000 injuries.

In a separate worst-case scenario for an earthquake beneath Victoria, deaths were estimated at nearly 1,500 and injuries at more than 19,000.

The human casualty figures are among the first such estimates for Metro Vancouver, as governments grapple with how to prepare for a severe earthquake that scientists predict for B.C.

Vancouver and Victoria were chosen because of their population density, political and economic significance and because of critical infrastructure such as the Port of Metro Vancouver.

Because the earthquakes are hypothetical scenarios, and because computer modelling always has uncertainties, the effects of an earthquake, particularly one that took place farther from Vancouver or Victoria, could be less extreme.

For example, a 2015 University of B.C. analysis, using a different scenario of a strong and deep earthquake in the Strait of Georgia (not a worst-case scenario), predicted 22 deaths and 38 serious injuries in Metro Vancouver. In Christchurch, New Zealand, where a similar shallow crustal earthquake hit in 2011, 10 kilometres away from the city, 185 people were killed.

“We wanted a scenario that had catastrophic impacts that required us to build a scalable and flexible plan,” says Kathryn Forge, a seismic specialist with Emergency Management B.C. “If we plan for the worst case, then we can tailor our response accordingly for other earthquakes or lesser hazards.”

A major rain and wind storm that swept B.C. this past weekend gave residents and entitites such as B.C. Hydro a reminder of the importance of disaster preparedness.

B.C. did not model a mega-thrust earthquake off the coast of B.C. — often called the “big one” — because it would take place at some distance from the population centres.

The new earthquake response plan — released at the end of July — sets up a framework for such elements as a logistics management system to obtain and transport personnel, equipment and supplies to areas of need.

It also calls for setting up of a response and recovery centre, prioritizing the restoration of critical assets such as hospitals, coordinating mass care and volunteers (including international humanitarian aid) and a large-scale media relations, public information and strategic communications effort.

In Metro Vancouver, the scenario showed nearly 100,000 people would require short-term shelter, many in downtown Vancouver.

Forge said the plan is an initial step and will need to be further fleshed out. For example, in the next year, they will be examining whether a response and recovery centre would need a new facility that would be put up quickly, or could be housed in an existing building such as a campus or conference centre.

The new plan follows recent criticisms that B.C. is not properly prepared for a catastrophic earthquake. In a 2014 report, the province’s auditor general said the province has not made it a priority to prepare for a major earthquake. A 2015 followup report commissioned by the B.C. government — and headed by Henry Renteria, former head of California’s Office of Emergency Services — came to a similar conclusion and called for more effort from the government and all levels of society.

The earthquake effects for Metro Vancouver and the Victoria area were modelled using software — called Hazus — developed in the by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and modified for Canada.

Simon Fraser University professor John Clague said we are starting to see the use of this kind of modelling to determine the effects of a catastrophic earthquake.

He said the exercise has value but cautioned the effect of an actual earthquake, particularly if it was distant from the community, would not be as great.

However, the ability to model the effects of an earthquake is a powerful tool, and one likely to grow in use, particularly for governments to use in preparing response plans and in determining the cost-effectiveness of seismic upgrades to buildings and infrastructure, said Clague, the chair in natural hazards at Simon Fraser University.

Earlier this year, North Vancouver released the result of a detailed analysis of earthquake effects based on work carried out by Natural Resources Canada scientists.

Natural Resources scientists also carried out the modelling work on the Vancouver and Victoria earthquake scenarios.

The last big earthquake to hit B.C. — similar to the one modelled for Vancouver and Victoria — was on Vancouver Island in 1946.

It hit north of Courtenay, and there was damage to buildings in that community, as well as in Comox, Port Alberni and Powell River. However, the damage was restricted because the area was not heavily populated and only two deaths were attributed to the quake.

Applied directly to Vancouver, the hypothetical consequences are useful in determining the response capacities that are needed for a catastrophic earthquake, said Murray Journeay, a research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada.

“These are not predictions, they are what-if planning scenarios,” said Journeay.

ghoekstra@vancouversun.com

 
 
 
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Dayana Hidalgo receives assistance from one of the Neighborhood Emergency Assistance Team members Saturday, August 23, 2015 during the earthquake disaster training scenario.
 

Dayana Hidalgo receives assistance from one of the Neighborhood Emergency Assistance Team members Saturday, August 23, 2015 during the earthquake disaster training scenario.

Photograph by: Kim Stallknecht, PNG

 
Dayana Hidalgo receives assistance from one of the Neighborhood Emergency Assistance Team members Saturday, August 23, 2015 during the earthquake disaster training scenario.
The earthquake used as worst-case scenario in modelling for Vancouver would be similar, but somehwat stronger, than the shallow earthquake that caused widespread damage and 185 deaths after hitting near Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2011.
While Dayana Hidalgo is being assisted by a member of the Neighbourhood Emergency Assistance Team, this first responder is giving a bandage to the next victim during the earthquake disaster scenario Saturday, August 23.
Possible earthquake scenarios in southwestern B.C.
Dayana Hidalgo receives assistance from one of the Neighborhood Emergency Assistance Team members Saturday, August 23, 2015 during the earthquake disaster training scenario.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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