How Canada can improve its preparedness following Nepal quake

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
A resident tries to clear debris of his house at a village following Saturday's earthquake in Sindhupalchowk, Nepal, April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

With a death toll of at least 4,000 and widespread devastation, the initial response to last weekend’s earthquake in Nepal has been to rush aid to the Himalayan nation and its suffering people.

But what happened there can also provide lessons for Canada to deal with earthquakes in this country, especially when it comes to preparedness and ensuring older buildings can withstand the shaking.

The quake that struck Nepal registered as magnitude 7.8, with aftershocks as high as 6.7.

Although the region is in a zone known for large quakes, the weekend temblor reportedly was the strongest in 80 years. It was enough to crumble many older brick buildings in the capital, Kathmandu, and destroy a centuries-old tower that was a World Heritage Site.

“From what I’ve seen, this is a very sad illustration of why building practices are so important,” Alison Bird, a seismologist at Natural Resources Canada’s Pacific Geoscience Centre in Sidney, B.C., told Yahoo Canada News.

“The buildings there are not generally reinforced and so the death toll and casualty toll is far higher than it would have been had they had the same building codes and construction practices that we have.”

A large earthquake anywhere in the world sends psychological ripples to Canada’s West Coast, where residents have been warned for years to be ready for The Big One. Scientists say it is expected in the next century based on historical data.

According to Emergency Management BC, the province experiences an average 2,500 quakes a year. Many are felt but only a handful cause damage beyond some rattling chinaware.

By contrast, The Big One could be in the range of magnitude 9.0, more than 10 times as big as the Nepal quake. Depending on the location, it could cause widespread damage in southwestern B.C. to buildings and infrastructure such as roads, bridges, sewer, water and power supplies.

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Bird said the level of damage depends heavily on how deep the source of the quake is. Deep quakes give the seismic waves a chance to disperse and weaken as they’re transmitted up through the Earth’s crust.

Nepal quake was shallow, close to cities

In Nepal, it was shallow and quite close to population centres, resulting in more dramatic ground motion. Like many developing countries, concrete and brick are the main building materials because of their relatively low cost.

“They’re held up by gravity,” she said. “You’re just sort of stacking things like a house of cards, so when strong horizontal forces come from the earthquake it causes pancaking and fairly devastating damage, which is not what we would tend to see here.”

Modern buildings on the West Coast are built to withstand the shaking and swaying from a quake. But communities still have brick buildings dating from the 19th and 20th centuries. Retrofitting them is crucial, Bird said.

An important national museum in Kathmandu survived the quake virtually unscathed, while other old buildings around it were badly damaged, the scientist pointed out.

“So it really is a very strong indication that retrofitting does work,” she said.

The B.C. government has been criticized for not moving fast enough to implement its program to retrofit the province’s older school buildings.

Despite serious efforts at improving public awareness, including an annual province-wide earthquake drill known as the Great B.C. Shakeout, a lot of B.C. residents remain relatively complacent about the long-predicted disaster.

Regular polling finds most British Columbians believe the province will be hit by a major quake in the next 50 years and a majority think they’ll be personally affected. But that same majority admit they’re not ready – with no emergency survival kit designed to last the recommended three days without help and no plan for what to do in the event of a quake.

Quake awareness said to be growing in eastern Canada

That concern is even lower once you move to Canada’s other main earthquake zones, including the North, southeastern Ontario and parts of Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.

Quakes there historically have not been as large as on the West Coast but Quebec’s Saguenay region, near Chicoutimi, experienced a 5.9 quake in 1988 (anything above magnitude 5 is considered very strong), crumbling railway embankments and sending building brickwork into the streets.

A 5.6 quake caused widespread damage around Cornwall, Ont., and Massena New York in 1944, and an estimated 6.2 quake that hit Charlevoix-Kamouraska in 1925 was felt over a 1,000-kilometre radius, with damage from Quebec City to Shawinigan.

Quebec’s Public Security Ministry says on its web site that although “tremblement de terre” are rare in the province, residents should make basic preparations, especially those zones with a history of higher-intensity quakes such as western Quebec, Charlevoix-Kamouraska and the lower St. Lawrence River’s North Shore.

A spokeswoman for Ontario’s emergency management agency said it’s too early for officials to talk about what lessons could be drawn from the Nepal quake. The government has a web page with basic tips on what to do in the event of a quake.

Although eastern Canadian quakes have not resulted in loss of life in the last century, Bird said awareness of the danger seems to be growing. She noted Quebec’s Charlevoix region joined B.C. in the annual international Shakeout drill last year.

But it’s in British Columbia, especially the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island,  that the risk of large-scale destruction and death is highest. A consultant’s report prepared for the provincial government last December makes sobering reading.

“In B.C., the lack of significant seismic activity near highly populated areas has resulted in widespread apathy,” said the report. “This has meant that earthquake preparedness has not received the day-to-day attention that other pressing needs have received.”

That’s led to cuts or restrictions in earthquake and disaster-preparedness programs as government focuses on other priorities, the report said.

“Certainly, there are preparedness successes and strengths in B.C. that should be recognized, and there are numerous stakeholders who are highly committed to this issue,” the review found.

“Overall though, it seems that progress on earthquake preparedness has been limited. Simply put, sufficient resources and priority have not been devoted to this effort.”

The report made a number of recommendations, including more funding, better co-ordination between municipal, provincial and federal governments and relevant agencies, better leadership by Emergency Management B.C. and yet more public education, awareness and engagement.

However, the head of Emergency Management BC said authorities are making solid strides to be read for a major quake. The latest version of its strategic plan focuses on response to a catastrophic quake, said Pat Quealey, an assistant deputy minister in the Justice Ministry.

“We’re on track for delivering all the projects that we’ve identified there on time,” he said in an interview Tuesday after stepping out of an earthquake co-ordination meeting with neighbouring U.S. states and Yukon.

Nepal quake shows importance of quick access

Nepal has underscored how important it is to gain immediate access to the disaster zone, said Quealey, to deliver essential supplies such as food, water, medicines and fuel to run generating equipment, as well as to assess what’s needed to sustain people over a longer term and help with recovery.

One point of progress has been the implementation of a new emergency notification system put in place last year to speed contact with local authorities in the event of a quake. It got its first test last Friday when a magnitude 6.1 quake hit the north-coast Haida Gwaii region.

“The time it took from us to press go to notify to the time we had feedback that all of our emergency co-ordination stakeholders in all the communities that need to be alerted took 10 minutes,” said Quealey. “A year ago the system we used to have took 45 to 90 minutes.”

For people living in Canadian earthquake zones, the key takeaway from Nepal is the need for individual preparedness, the ability to take care of yourself and your neighbours.

“We stress that here too because there simply aren’t enough people and response agencies to help everyone,” said Bird. “The more self-sufficient you are in a natural disaster, the better you’re going to get through it.”