Earthquake Preparedness for
a handout to accompany a presentation by Mike
I created this handout to act as a resource for the students in the course; I discovered I had a lot more to say on the subject than could fit in a bunch of slides or a one-page handout. Subsequently, this document became required reading for both an assignment and the final exam. Though the course is over, I'm keeping it around on the Web because I think it's a useful resource to people trying to do future presentations of the sort (ah, ego), and because I have an aversion to breaking links.
Ironically, shortly after I delivered this presentation, an ML=2.5 earthquake, centered not far from where I live, struck the Victoria area.
The slides from my talk can be reviewed here.
Public service announcement (22:25, 28/02/01): A strong earthquake struck the Pacific Northwest at 10:54 (PST) on Wednesday, 28 February 2001. The epicenter and hypocenter were located around Olympia, Washington, roughly 50 km below the surface. Computed magnitude at this writing is MW=6.8, which was apparently enough to break a recording pen on a seismograph at the University of Washington. Damage is primarily limited to Seattle and the surrounding areas, although a light pole fell over in Langley. The earthquake was felt throughout Puget Sound and Western Washington, in Southerwestern British Colubmia (including Victoria and Vancouver), and in locations as far away as Portland, Salt Lake City, Penticton, Kelowna, and the Kootenays. Additional information is available from the Pacific Geoscience Center.
Probably the most interesting piece of data I've found so far on this earthquake is the Mercalli intensity projection map put together by the US Geological Survey. A slightly prettier version, using data from sensors (mapping velocity and acceleration), is available from the University of Washington.
This was a deep-focus earthquake, which is why the destruction is as limited as it was; it could have been a lot worse. Once again, if you live in the Pacific Northwest, please fill out an earthquake intensity survey, even if you didn't feel it. If you live in the United States, use this form instead (USGS link).
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the west coast of Canada
is a seismically active region. Earthquakes along the coastal margins
of North America are a testament to the active processes at work below
the surface of the earth. Over 200 earthquakes are recorded annually
in the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island. Much of the seismic
activity seen in southwestern British Columbia is associated to a
system of thrust faults located in a zone along the margins of the
Pacific and North American plates, including the Queen Charlotte
fault (a steep, active thrust fault), as well as the Denali, Chatham,
and Fairweather faults. This zone of seismicity extends as far north
as the Aleutian islands and as far south as California and the famous
San Andreas fault, placing southewestern BC in squarely in the
The historical risk is difficult to evaluate. A great earthquake is believed to have occurred in January of 1700, but the most recent major earthquake in this fault system was in Prince William Sound, in Alaska, in March of 1964. This magnitude 8.3-8.6 caused extreme levels of damage, created a massive tsunami, and should serve as a reminder of the risk to those who believe "it can't happen here." Of course, an even that took place 36 years ago is not terribly relevant, yet once or twice a year we are reminded, quite firmly, that there is a risk and it is in our best interests to be prepared.
Prediction is unreliable, prevention is impossible. Preparation remains the only real option for our communities -- and ourselves -- if we want to mitigate the risk as best we can.
An Overview of BC Emergency Planning
Within the province of British Columbia, primary planning authority
for emergencies falls to the Provincial Emergency Program. PEP is
charged, by provincial law, with maintaining "awareness, preparedness,
response, and recovery" to "reduce the human and financial costs of
actual or imminent emergencies or disasters." They set the goals and
the priorities and provide general direction for subordinate
organizations, such as the municipal emergency programs. During a
declared emergency, PEP's emergency operations center serves as a
clearinghouse for information and a central coordinating office for
assistance from other agencies and areas within the province, country,
and world. Within the province, PEP is the only organization allowed
to request assistance from external agencies (e.g., government of
Canada, other provinces, other municipalities within British Columbia,
and potentially Washington State and the US federal government). PEP's
role is essentially one of oversight and coordination, both during
times of "peace" and during disasters.
Each municipality in British Columbia is required under the Emergency Program Act (the legislation which also gives PEP its authority) to establish and main local emergency plans. These plans must cover preparedness, response, and recovery from disasters or other incidents. Development of these plans, and their implementation, is usually vested in a municipal emergency management organization -- the municipal emergency program. (e.g., the Saanich Emergency Program.) These emergency programs are the lead agencies for post-disaster activities, whether it involves setting up reception centers, conducting search and rescue operations, or providing communications services. The Emergency Program Act grants these organizations extraordinary powers, including the ability to
It should be noted that these powers can only be exercised during a declared state of emergency; only a select number of people have the authority to do this, and the decisions are not made lightly. A declaration of a state of emergency essentially authorizes a government, whether it is the province of British Columbia or the City of Victoria, to take whatever actions it deems necessary to meet the threats posed by an actual or imminent disaster.
Disasters are, by their very nature, tricky things. Predicting what will happen and where is an inexact science at best. Planning, therefore, becomes an exercise in balancing creativity, science, and politics.
(Note: Throughout this document I will talk about earthquakes, but earthquakes are by no means the only things that are planned for. However, an earthquake is the big event that everyone is worried about, and so it gets more attention than the other possibilities. The most recent large-scale exercise in greater Victoria (CANAM SAREX) featured a cruise ship fire as its scenario, so please don't think we're only concerned about earthquakes and ignorant of large fires, airplane crashes, hazardous materials spills, blizzards, computer bugs...)
Assumptions and Planning Models
The most logical assumption one could make when planning for an
earthquake is that everything is destroyed -- for instance, a
magnitude 8 or greater earthquake strikes greater Victoria and
flattens everything. (Grade XII on the Modified Mercalli scale.) This
makes some sense, and in a way, it is exactly what happens when people
sit down and draw up a plan from scratch. Generally speaking, total
destruction and devastation is avoided -- some things are still
intact, or reasonably so -- but the safest position to take is that
most are not. This makes sense, since it is better to plan to have
nothing available rather than to depend on things that might not be
Planning scenarios break down along "moderate," "major" and "catastrophic" earthquakes. There is some disagreement about what constitutes a "moderate" earthquake and what constitutes a "major" earthquake, but the key factor with these classifications is the capability for damage. Even a "moderate" quake of 6.0 magnitude is enough to severely damage many structures and disrupt life. Earthquakes falling into "moderate" and "major" categories are thus dependent upon the amount of damage, with major earthquakes being considered as such because of increased response needs. The impact such an earthquake will have on the population of British Columbia is highly dependent upon local conditions and the distance from the epicenter/focus of the earthquake. Because we don't know where the next fault fracture is going to occur, it is impossible to project damage estimates; these earthquakes will be considered "moderate" or "major" depending on what happens after they strike.
Catastrophic earthquakes, on the other hand, require no such careful definition. They are the result of widespread fracturing across a subduction zone, such as occurred in 1964 in Prince William Sound, and what is believed to have happened in January of 1700. Formal hazard assessments and scientific studies relating to an event of this size in British Columbia have not yet been done; we can, however, study some data from southern California regarding a projected M=8.3 earthquake occurring near a major population center:
A standard assumption and planning model, therefore, might revolve around a major earthquake that resulted in many fires and extensive structural collapse, a heavy loss of life (perhaps in excess of 1,000 people in the Capital Region), a massive disruption of utilities and services, and the almost total exhaustion of local resources within one hour of the incident occurring. In addition, this model would also assume that help from outside the affected area will take some time to arrive, and that the rebuilding process will be long and slow.
With these points in mind, we can begin to formulate a response plan.
Problems Associated with Planning
The primary problem with planning for disasters is that they are, by
their very nature, not something one can anticipate. The earthquake
risk is such that there is a 1 in 20 chance a major quake will strike
southwestern British Columbia in the next 50 years, but this number is
essentially meaningless. Risk is concrete; the numbers are
not. Emergency preparedness is essentially the creation of plans to be
implemented if and when bad things happen. The timing of those bad
things will almost always be inconvenient -- it is an article of faith
that the most serious incidents will happen at the most inopportune
Given that earthquakes are unpredictable and will occur with no warning, the risk is somewhat nebulous. As a general rule, people are not easily excited by non-specific risks. They are also reluctant to think about the things that may kill or injure them or their loved ones. Emergency planning is very expensive, and with virtually no return on investment, it is difficult to encourage spending on preparedness and equipment. Although the question is one of "pay now, or pay big later," it is often not seen in that light; politicians and citizens, more concerned with immediate problems, do not see the potential threat as a major concern. Essentially, beyond the fact that the risks are difficult to quantify and we don't really know what will happen, where it will happen, or when, the biggest problem is that people simply don't care. Compared to apathy, the other problems are almost trivially easy to solve...
Why Hazard Assessments Aren't the Answer
In the last 20 years, our understanding of structural engineering,
soil science, and geology and geophysics has grown by leaps and
bounds, allowing us to produce microzonation
maps that study the relative amplification, slope, and
liquefaction risks for different areas. We have learned how to design
buildings that are capable of withstanding major seismic events; we
know how to examine existing buildings to assess the risk of
collapse. (This is how we know, for example, that the Royal Jubilee
Hospital is at extreme risk during large earthquakes.) It might be
reasonable, then, to expect that more concrete scenarios could be
developed, along with better estimates of damage.
This is, unfortunately, not the case. The microzonation maps are interesting from a scientific perspective, but they are essentially a curiosity. They show where the greatest damage is expected to occur as a result of liquefaction, slope, or amplification hazards, but the proof of concept will ultimately be in what remains standing after an earthquake. The effects of soil amplification are variable and dependent almost entirely on the type, location, and severity of the earthquake. The maps (and structural assessments) are theories, not facts. We will get what we get when the shaking is all over; a hazard assessment is not a particularly compelling argument when trying to tell a building that it should not have fallen over.
What about the public utilities? The Capital Regional District Water Department has, for example, conducted seismic surveys of its dams and major water distribution sites. Their emergency plan, some 85 pages long, lays out the foundations for a response to various incidents (including dam breaches), but does not specify what is likely to fail and what isn't. If you try talking to BC Hydro, Telus, Shaw, Centra Gas, or any other major public utility, they will cheerfully tell you that they've conducted an assessment of their relative risks, but they will also tell you they are not interested in sharing that information with anyone outside of their organization -- most likely for liability reasons. (Utilities that make statements as to what will and won't be operational open themselves to litigation when it turns out that promised services aren't. It is much better to say nothing publicly.)
Instead of talking about specific risks to specific buildings or specific areas, it is more productive to talk about specific risks over a generalized area.
Specific Risks and the Problems They Pose
Relatively large sections of San Francisco remained more or less
intact after the earthquake of 1906. Yet when it was all over, much of
the city had suffered some damage, and many areas were almost
completely devastated. Likewise, in San Francisco (once more) in
1989, in Northridge in 1994, and in Kobe in 1996, a common element was
responsible for more lost property than almost any other: fire.
In 1906 it was unavoidable. Fire protection was in its infancy as a science and as a skill. In more recent earthquakes, the largest fires started primarily as a result of ruptured gas lines and downed power lines; small fires grew unchecked into larger ones, fueled by the presence of combustibles in everyday life. Fire remains a major hazard after earthquakes, so much so that survivors are strongly encouraged to inspect their power and gas supplies for problems, and to shut them both off if there is any doubt that they remain intact.
In Greater Victoria, the problem is especially acute -- the firefighting resources of this area are limited at the best of times. For example, Oak Bay has a staff of 25 firefighters and three front-line attack vehicles. A major fire in a multiple residence dwelling (i.e., apartment building, extended care facility) or involving more than two houses will result in mutual aid calls to neighboring departments. Victoria and Saanich have correspondingly larger departments -- more personnel and more units -- but even they find themselves taxed when dealing with more than one working fire at a time. It is very easy to overwhelm a fire department in Greater Victoria during "peacetime." We will not be fortunate enough to only have one fire at a time within Oak Bay, or Saanich, or Victoria, or any other jurisdiction on the south Island. The fires will come all at once, while crews are tied up elsewhere. A significant number of lives, along with a correspondingly significant amount of property, will be lost because of these limited firefighting resources.
There is no real solution to this problem. Fire protection is expensive and requires continued expenditures. The costs of providing full coverage to a city are prohibitive (although it can be done); no municipality in Greater Victoria has seen fit to spend the money.
In other words, external help will be required. It may take some time to arrive, but it will arrive eventually, even if only in the form of personnel. Apparatus will take longer to arrive, of course; this use of out-of-town personnel means that the Prince George or Calgary Fire Departments may be dealing with residual fires in Oak Bay or Esquimalt. As far as priorities go, rescue of imperiled lives is more important than containing a fire, and containing a fire is more important than suppressing it. It is very likely that a point will be reached in large scale fires where the safest and most prudent approach is to withdraw from an area, cut a firebreak, and allow the fire to burn itself out. Not the most encouraging thing, but, as with medicine, the principles of triage must apply: "do the most good for the most number of people." It is pointless to fight a fire that has burned several city blocks yet which is largely contained; far better to send firefighting resources places where they can do more good.
Structural Collapse and Failures
During the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, all but one of the deaths
was attributed to structural collapse. Whether a building will collapse or
not depends on several factors, none of which can be easily quantified
or turned into a concrete risk: soil conditions, local underlying
geology, type of construction and materials used during
construction. Unfortunately, most multiple-family dwellings (apartment
buildings) are not seismically stable as a result of design flaws and
local hazards. Individual homes may be able to survive relatively
intact assuming wood-frame construction and depending on the footprint
and their overall design. Several major structures, however
(hospitals, fire stations, emergency coordination centers) are at
increased risk for collapse.
This is not helped by the fact that local search and rescue resources are even more limited than the fire departments. Urban search and heavy rescue is a difficult task, requiring a great deal of both initial training and continual refresher work. It is a dangerous assignment as well, combining a number of rescue specialties.
Fortunately, we live very close to the United States and some of the best USAR teams in the world -- the Urban Search and Rescue teams developed and deployed by the US Federal Emergency Management Authority have responded to disasters and earthquakes worldwide. It is highly likely that the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team would deploy to southwestern British Columbia following a major earthquake. (The other USAR team that would likely play a role is Florida Task Force 1, from Miami-Dade County. VA-TF1 and FL-TF1 are the designated international response teams, having deployed in response to earthquakes in Turkey, Taiwan, the Philippine Islands, Columbia, Venezuela, Armenia, and El Salvador.)
USAR resources exist both within Canada and the province of British Columbia, and it is possible that the response will be handled internally, but it is very likely that assistance will be sought, at least on an advisory basis, from the United States government.
Before an earthquake, though, several things can be done. This includes better engineering of important structures, better urban planning, and structural upgrading to protect existing facilities and buildings -- the Greater Victoria School District and the Capital Regional District have spent $millions upgrading schools, roads, and public buildings. This may not mean anything in the final analysis, however; the Japanese know more about earthquake protection than just about anyone else, and 6,000 people died in Kobe, largely as a result of structural collapse.
Of all the risks, none is perhaps more disconcerting than the
possibility of death and injury. Several key points are worth
While working on a series of recommendations for a committee looking at post-earthquake health services, I developed a model of injury and death that contains four tiers. Although it is not an official system or a recognized model, I find it conceptually helpful to categorize the medical victims of an earthquake into four groups:
Secondary casualties are people who survive the initial incident, but are injured during the process, and who die because of insufficient resources and the inability to access effective and immediate emergency medical care. A good example of a secondary casualty would be a person who suffered bilateral femur fractures but died of shock as a result of internal bleeding.
Tertiary casualties are people who suffer from pre-existing medical conditions aggravated by the earthquake. These aggravations would be survivable during "peacetime," but because the medical system will be overwhelmed with traumatically injured patients, they will die because of an inability to access the system. Typically, one would expect this group to include those with chronic disorders -- angina (stable or unstable), congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a history of transient ischemic attacks, or other systemic illness. This group also includes those who become sick as a result of the post-disaster environment, primarily through communicable diseases, and who may or may not die as a result.
Quaternary casualties constitute perhaps the largest and unquantifiable group of casualties, since it involves those who suffer lasting effects from their involvement in the incident. The psychological impact of an earthquake, the stress of surviving and the grief at having lost loved ones, and the loss of property will almost certainly result in deaths due to suicide. When these deaths occur is a bit of a mystery; no one is really sure, and there has not been a great deal of research done into this area. My personal feeling is that the quaternary casualties will not show up until some time after the incident has occurred, and at that point these deaths become an epidemiological problem rather than an acute care issue.
Beyond these issues, there are others, more troubling. The Capital Health Region will likely suffer heavy losses in our hypothetical earthquake. The Royal Jubilee Hospital is notoriously unstable, and there is a high probability that the center block will come crashing down... right on top of the emergency department. Even if the hospital itself remains standing, extensive surveying must still be done before the facility can be used for patient care. This problem will be solved somewhat with the opening of the new tower in 2001-2002, but until then, a significant portion of Victoria's acute care hospital beds will be unavailable after an earthquake. The Victoria General Hospital, being of newer construction, is theoretically seismically stable and should be capable of withstanding a fairly substantial earthquake (although it is believed that most of the glass will shatter).
Aside from rescue, support for the medical community is perhaps the most important commodity that could be brought in from outside the disaster area. Municipalities will provide basic first aid and stabilization of patients through the reception centers, the British Columbia Ambulance Service will attempt to provide intermediate care and transport to medical aid when and where possible, and the Capital Health Region will likely establish one or more temporary hospitals using borrowed equipment. The Canadian Armed Forces are prepared to deploy field hospital units to the scene of an earthquake; again, some resources may be borrowed or requested from the United States government as well as other areas of Canada.
Ironically, while the number of dead and injured is largely a matter of luck, it is the one area where preparation can do the most good, where careful planning will allow us to maximize the effects of that luck. It is also one of the few areas that has been extensively studied, particularly when it comes to tertiary casualties and long-term effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, conducted an in-depth study of patient and community needs following the August 1999 earthquake in Turkey, and journals such as Annals of Emergency Medicine and Prehospital and Disaster Medicine routinely publish reports detailing the medical situation(s) after major disasters.
In spite of this, planning to mitigate this hazard is still difficult. It took nearly four months to develop a recommended list of supplies for basic medical care after an earthquake (and the list is not cheap, running at ~$1,500/kit).
Public Infrastructure Disruption
The disruption of public utilities and transportation infrastructure
is another area where guesswork is needed. It is difficult to tell in
advance what will happen, either because extensive hazard surveys
have not been done, or because those hazard studies are not available
to the general public or emergency planners. However, it is expected
that most roads and highways will be in passable condition, if full of
debris; a lot of time and money has gone into upgrading the stability
of bridges and overpasses. The runways at the Victoria International
Airport may suffer some damage, primarily from buckling -- how severe
will not be known until after the earthquake. Terminal facilities at
the airport are questionable, but may be unnecessary for disaster
response, since the key is cargo handling rather than passenger
movement. The ferry terminal at Swartz Bay is a giant question mark:
nobody is really sure how stable it is (although persons in the know
are advising people not to count on it). The utility companies are, as
has been previously mentioned, particularly guarded about their risk
assessments and their expectations.
There is little that can be done about any of this, except to plan to be without power, water, telephones, gas, and Internet access for at least 72 hours.
Personal Protection Before an Earthquake
As we have learned, careful planning and preparedness are the only
real precautions we can take against an earthquake (short of moving,
anyway). Although governments do have a mandate for some of this, much
can be done by individuals to prepare themselves for any disaster or
emergency. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own safety;
herewith, a section on how you can get ready for the big one.
Protecting Your House
Imagine what would happen if your home (or apartment building) were
shaken violently. How would the objects inside behave? Keep in mind
that taller buildings may sway more than vibrate. Would that have an
impact on the contents of your home? Seek the advice of professionals
(structural engineers, architects, building inspectors, insurance
adjustors) if you're uncertain how to quake-proof your home.
Some general guidelines:
Comprehensive information on preparing specifically tailored survival kits can be found at Doug Ritter's Equipped to Survive Web site, including a maximalist list of supplies that some people might find useful when constructing their kits. Note that many stores in the Greater Victoria area (including but not limited to Columbia Fire & Safety, and Custom First Aid) are selling emergency kits built to PEP standards; this might be worth investigating if you just want to buy something commercially and not have to assemble everything yourself.
Your survival kit should contain enough supplies to survive for 72 hours or more without help, whether you are at home, at work, or in your car. Whatever you do, put it somewhere and then don't raid it -- several items on this list are useful for other, non-survival purposes, and it would be a real shame to have to break open your kit only to discover you left the flashlight under the kitchen sink and the radio in the box with all the beach stuff..
Pet owners should also consider the needs of their companions. Food and water dishes (along with food and water), leashes, kennels or cages, and medication should be included as part of your survival kit.
During an Earthquake
The most important aspect of life during an earthquake is to not
panic. The shaking will eventually stop (although it may not feel like
it); the immediate challenge is to avoid falling things. To that end,
get out of rooms with wide, unsupported ceilings (gyms,
auditoriums). Move into safer locations in rooms -- under tables,
desks, or solid furniture with enough clearance to protect you, and
hang on. Stay away from windows and areas that may become drop zones
for falling objects (under bookshelves). Doors may slam on your
fingers if you are in doorways, but if there is no other option, the
doorway is better than nothing.
If driving, pull over to the side of the road and stop. Avoid stopping near bridges, overpasses, overhead wires, and tall buildings. Do not block the road; it will be needed for rescue purposes. Stay in your car.
In public areas, take cover and watch out for panicked crowds. Get into safe areas inside stores, keeping away from windows, skylights, and display cases that contain heavy objects.
Stay put until the shaking stops. Aftershocks are likely. Try to remain calm (I know, this is difficult).
After an Earthquake
After the shaking stops, you may feel a great deal of relief at having
survived the initial incident. It is now time to start worrying about
staying alive. Life-threatening situations get first priority, so deal
with those first, including the critically injured. It may become
necessary to take charge of other people, so remain calm and think
At home, inspect your house for damage and other hazards. Don't run outside to do this, though; check carefully to make sure you won't get crushed by falling debris as you exit the door (look up, in other words). Check yourself and others for injuries, and administer first aid as needed. Use a flashlight to check the status of your utilities; if there is any doubt as to whether they're intact, turn them off:
If you need to evacuate, grab your gear and leave, after securing your home against intruders (criminals don't take breaks because everything's fallen down). If your family is separated, this might be a good time to head to the meeting point.
It is anticipated that most people will be able to stay in their homes after an earthquake. For those that cannot, or who need additional assistance, municipalities will set up reception centers throughout the city to provide food, shelter, first aid, and supplies. Listen to the radio to find out where these centers are; listen to the radio to hear emergency instructions (including evacuation orders). The reception centers will also provide registration and inquiry services, a method of tracking survivors and informing friends and family elsewhere of the fate of their relatives, so it is worth making your way to a reception center eventually, even if you are perfectly fine and healthy where you are. (Additionally, if you are in good condition, you can be of some use at a reception center -- so head over and help out.)
After 72 hours, what happens next is largely a function of what has happened before. Outside assistance is arriving in the disaster area. Information on food and water distribution will be broadcast on the radio; follow the instructions. The process of rebuilding will be long and slow, but you've survived the worst. Continue to keep an eye on yourself and on others, and don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
Earthquakes are frightening events. The prospect of suddenly having
your life literally turned upside down is distasteful to all but the
most bizarre of us. People are naturally afraid of disasters, and with
good reason -- lives and property will be lost, loved ones will be
hurt, and things will probably never be the same again. Because of the
random nature of emergencies, preparedness is the only real way to
tilt the odds of survival in favor of you and your family. The
Provincial Emergency Program has a silly but effective slogan: "Be
prepared, not scared." Preparation helps mitigate fear, and training
helps mitigate panic.
Use your local emergency program as a resource -- talk to them about the plans in your areas (where the reception centers will be, what kind of specific hazards are in your community and neighborhood). They have extensive libraries of material available to you, and are there to be consulted. The more you know going into a disaster, the more likely you are to come out of it in one piece.
Finally, please consider joining your local emergency program as a volunteer. There are skills and ideas you can learn that will help you, your family, and others after a disaster. This is especially true if you have any special skills (medical training, search and rescue), but even if you don't, post-disaster management and response is a labor-intensive process, and help is most definitely needed.