Fifteen years ago, Jonathan Hughes was sitting in his Vancouver home, working on a paper.
“I was sitting there writing about earthquakes, working on my PhD dissertation — I saw my dog look up, and I looked out my window, saw all these birds take flight.”
In Vancouver, it was a brief vibration; to the uninitiated, there could have been a hundred explanations — if you were on social media this past December, you saw all of them, bumps and shudders hardly strong enough to wake you from a dream. But in Olympia and Seattle, schools, the seawall, the airport were all damaged. No one died as a direct cause, the news reports said, relieved, but the cameras still panned across enough destruction for George W. Bush, then-president, to declare the areas affected by the 6.8 magnitude earthquake a natural disaster area.
It was the first earthquake Hughes experienced — and in there is the reason earthquakes have recently been the stuff of nightmares: even if we’ve studied them, and even though we’ve felt a few over the past couple decades in BC, we have not truly met them. The drills, vaguely remembered from public school, the list of safety procedures, blurred in our heads with images of chaos from disaster movies, are mostly hypothetical — we do not know, for sure, what we would do. Where hurricanes arrive every year on the eastern coast, and floods arrive with the seasons, earthquakes might never come, or, as geologists will point out, they could be here as you read this, your homework next to you, the world ready to shift outside.
Earthquakes also happen every day — there have been eight so far today, and 16 happened yesterday in the western hemisphere alone. Where we are located, it’s possible to find historical examples of three major types of earthquakes: the Nisqually earthquake that hit Olympia was a deep earthquake, “the Big One” would be a subduction earthquake, and shallow earthquakes, bringing aftershocks and landslides.
“We’re in the window, probably of all of these,” Hughes says. “But we don’t know if it’s going to happen next week, or 50 years from now.”
The severity of any of these is up to movements we cannot track like we do the weather: not just magnitude but the epicentre; not just the location of faults and plates, but the way they interact with each other. These factors are the reason none of the earthquakes of last night and the yesterday are in your newsfeed.
Major articles (many of them following a piece that ran last year in the New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz) tend to focus on what could happen in Victoria or Vancouver if the Pacific coast was hit by a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake — but how prepared is UFV and the rest of the Fraser Valley?
The answer is not simple: as a university made up of multiple commuter campuses, the answer for one part will not be the same as the answer for another — where a place like UBC is essentially a small municipality to itself, UFV crosses rivers and school districts. One thing is for certain: as the Fraser Valley is further inland, while it will not be exempt from the effects of a catastrophic earthquake, it likely will not bear the full brunt of it, in the case of the subduction model. As well, while some may lament UFV’s lack of a long, prestigious history, that has its upsides: none of its buildings are relics.
“They’re not like some of the other post-secondary campuses that have very old structures, sometimes 100 years old,” says Mark Goudsblom, the director of facilities and project management. “In that regard, we’re well positioned.”
The oldest building UFV still uses is B building on the Abbotsford campus, which along with A and C building date back to 1983. The post-tensioning steel that reinforces its concrete structure is x-rayed every year for breaks, Goudsblom says. But building codes, which each structure at UFV is built to meet, change every five years, and newer standards, based on new information, that make for buildings better suited to withstand shaking (Baker House on the Abbotsford campus is built of a wood frame, understood to be the most flexible material usable for multiple storeys, able to move with, not strained by, an earthquake), are not retroactively applied for future tests to older buildings. They meet the codes they are built by, and are approved. UFV does not publicize its data on building management — Goudsblom would only say that the university is currently commissioning a new report on seismic evaluation as part of its regular maintenance and planning processes.
As earthquakes are unpredictable, so are their scenarios inland — both Goudsblom and Brian Leonard, the emergency management director at UFV, repeat the mantra that there are “No absolutes.” But given a significant earthquake, the events would not be a complete mystery.
In the initial shaking, the same practices anywhere else would apply: get under cover, don’t run outside, wait until any shaking stops. If the building you’re in is safe, stay. If not, move to safety.
Municipal fire crews and paramedics would be the first responders in an emergency, but before they arrive, UFV would rely on the work of its own staff: security, janitorial staff, and facilities workers are trained in first aid, and would work to access the single emergency depots on Abbotsford and Chilliwack’s main campuses, which hold the resources also contained in earthquake kits: first aid, blankets, water.
If a significant earthquake takes place during the day, at a peak time for courses in session, it is unlikely these trained staff will be able to reach every location needing their attention, but UFV is counting on municipal assistance — it has a representative that meets multiple times a year on Abbotsford and Chilliwack’s emergency planning committee — to respond. “In the chaos of an event, there will be some confusion, [but] then our emergency response guidelines, the training, that will all kick in.”
Part of that training will mean assessing the level of safety for each building using a three-level rating-system — only a green would mean people can go inside and resume normal activity.
“You would have windows breaking, you’d have door disalignments, all of your plaster in the walls could be cracked, your corners could be cracked, you could have ceiling tiles that would come down,” Goudsblom says, listing the likeliest hazards. He’s quick to point out that the structure of the building may still be safe — no immediate risk of collapsing, and, unlike outside, a reduced risk of falling objects causing injury or death — but when a strong earthquake does strike, it will leave a mark.
Based on his observations of the area, Hughes thinks the Fraser Valley would not be as in danger of liquefaction as Seattle was, where underground sand layers expand, burst through the ground, or act like liquid, meaning anything supported above sinks and becomes destabilized. But it’s a valley: landslides and flooding can happen even without a subduction earthquake. “A lot of the older structures in the region are made of brick — they would have the greatest potential for damages,” he says. “That’s in the greater community, but could impact a lot of students, faculty getting home, getting to their loved ones, all that could be an issue.”
Once people are outside the boundaries of UFV campuses, their situation will be in the hands of local and provincial decision-makers, in homes, at workplaces, on the road between destinations, likely trapped or limited in mobility following a disaster. Without the large-scale, highly-monitored building standards of a public university, the situation may come closer to Schulz’s scenarios: “Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, canisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off — or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.”
The hope, of course, is that because BC is now often the star of these nightmares, plans are in place to mitigate disaster and respond quickly. If a significant earthquake happened, the Province could immediately declare a state of emergency, which would activate certain powers, such as evacuations, demolition, or temporary construction to manage and direct people. And at the UFV level, communications plans are in place if wifi is up or down, if the power is knocked out or not, if phone lines are overloaded — posters, signs, social media posts, or emails through an official alert system will all say the same thing: this is what you need to know to reach safety.
But based on BC’s auditor general’s findings from two years ago, all is not well. The same inconsistency and myth-like absence from our everyday experience means that, when it comes to emergency services, it’s much easier for the province to develop plans for forest fires, avalanches, and flooding. “Catastrophic earthquake planning has not been made a priority by government or EMBC,” the opening to the report states. “Funding the planning work for a catastrophic earthquake that may or may not occur in the short-term competes with funding requests for more immediate needs, such as health care and public education. EMBC’s current operating budget for emergency activities is about the same as it was in 2006, despite the increases in BC’s population, the near doubling of BC’s property values and knowledge of the devastating impact of recent earthquakes in Chile, Japan and New Zealand.”
Following the report’s release, the provincial government accepted all nine of its main recommendations; but the report was made with a very clear purpose: 17 years prior the auditor general wrote a report on the same subject. The provincial government listened then, it pledged to do better then. In response this time, so far the Province’s biggest effort can be seen in the form of a 125-page document outlining an “Immediate Response Plan,” which includes endless bullet points on safety and potential actions, a “request for federal assistance” template letter, and hopelessly ugly Powerpoint slides showing the chain of command in different situations.
With no similarly sized document on preparedness to speak of yet, individual responsibility is where most advice is being directed. Dave Pinton, the director of communications at UFV, acknowledges this is not something that can, realistically, be spread completely, educating everyone, impressing the urgency and necessity of knowing which steps to safeguard a house, people, supplies, planning routes around every single thing that could go wrong. “Is the awareness where it needs to be? Probably not,” he says. “Have we made some strides? Sure. And I don’t think we’re alone, I think that’s everybody, not just in post-secondary but across the Lower Mainland.”
As for Hughes, the geography professor, more information to better understand our geological underpinnings in the Fraser Valley is unlikely to come terribly soon. There is interest from undergraduate students, but undergraduates are limited in research time, and any research is limited by funding — data on earthquakes is slow-coming, expensive, and always subject to the same, ever-present factors: low sample size and unpredictability. Still, he sees reasons to see more than just distress and under preparedness in the future.
“I haven’t gone out and sampled the public at large, but when I come across people that are saying ‘The big one!’ they really imagine this massive wall of water coming out and taking us out in the Fraser Valley,” he says. “And they really blow this thing up. And so if anything, I’d say people are aware, and they know about this big one, and I think that maybe some of their views are exaggerated in terms of what it might do. That’s not a bad thing — I’d rather people have more concern than less concern for sure.”
Moving back from an individual level, Hughes also sees the university as a potential force for good — like the major narratives in this history, Vancouver and Victoria will always be at the forefront, but not for UFV.
“One way I think the university could interface with the communities that we serve is developing more outreach,” he says. “The drop-cover-hold-on, the emergency kits that people need at their homes, how to retrofit their homes. We could be part of that message, I think. I think there are some interesting ways that we, as a service to the communities, could do maybe more than we have.”