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“Well, it was a bright sunny morning…”
Heather Hallet was only three and a half years old when the biggest (onshore) earthquake ever recorded in Canada stirred late sleepers out of bed on June 23, 1946. Despite being a toddler at the time, her memories of that Sunday morning are remarkably vivid.
“Mother was cooking porridge I think,” she recalls.
“All of a sudden it got very noisy and the house started to shake; it was more than shaking – the house was going up and down because the house was up on pilings… Mother started sort of running around in circles and shrieking.”
Hallet’s older brother stuffed her and her younger brother under the big oak dining room table, where she had the dual luxuries of a good view and a safe feeling.
“I was sitting on the cross-bracing underneath, watching all the dishes fall off the table and roll around the floor and smash.”
Through the open back door she could see the alder tree in their backyard – a good, solid tree they’d used to anchor a donkey engine with a steel cable – swaying back and forth.
Her mother stepped out on to the back porch and exclaimed, “Oh my! Blue mud is shooting out of the swamp, fifty feet in the air!”
Hallet says her mother was “just absolutely spellbound” by the geysers of blue mud shooting over the tops of the trees.
As for Hallet’s father, he “slept through the whole thing.”
Campbell River was just outside of the earthquake’s epicentre. While the damage to Hallet’s postwar home was significant, no one in her family was injured. That said, the Ministry of Natural Resources credits the magnitude 7.3 earthquake with two deaths: “one due to drowning when a small boat capsized in an earthquake-generated wave, and the other from a heart attack in Seattle”.
Jackie Kloosterboer has spent the better part of the last two decades trying to prepare British Columbians for a disaster like this. She’s the emergency planning coordinator for the City of Vancouver.
“We live in an area where we’re so overdue for an earthquake,” Kloosterboer says of B.C.’s biggest city.
Scientists are warning of a very big earthquake – even bigger than the 1946 monster that shook Hallet’s house off its pilings.
The Ministry of Energy and Mines cites evidence “suggesting that megathrust quakes may have occurred every few hundred years or so in the past.” Megathrust earthquakes are – as the name implies – massive quakes that result when tension builds up between tectonic plates – such as the Juan de Fuca and North American plates, which kiss along our coastline. Scientists say it’s been about 300 years since the plates in our region, the Cascadia subduction zone, induced a big one.
But we’ve seen the impact of megathrust earthquakes in both Chile and Japan in recent years. The scale of these disasters – and sobering messages from the science community – leaves many of us asking, are we next? And if so, will we survive?
Many of us are familiar with the impending doom storyline, yet we’re slow to take action.
“A lot of us have lived here for many years and felt a little bit of a shaker, but we’ve never had the big monster earthquake happen, so people are complacent,” Kloosterboer says. “We find people from back east come here [and] they’re more likely to be prepared than the people who’ve lived here long term.”
While some people may have emergency kits in place, how often are they updated?
“Outdated food and water is not going to help you when something happens,” Kloosterboer says.
Try updating your kits at the same time you change your clocks, she suggested to a group of mostly seniors at a free preparedness workshop hosted by the City of Vancouver at the West End Community Centre. The city hosts about 100 workshops like this per year.
This session was geared toward seniors, as they may have special challenges to consider. Kloosterboer and her co-facilitator encouraged seniors to actively solicit the help they need to prepare for a potential emergency.
“We see a lot of seniors who will not reach out for help. Family members can help them secure those heavy bookcases, can help them get their supplies in place. A lot of them don’t have the money to go out and buy emergency kits, so we work with them to help them develop their emergency kits using items they already have in their house.”
The point – Kloosterboer says – is to empower people through these workshops, not to scare them. She estimates about 80 per cent of British Columbians have no disaster plans in place. She says the biggest misconception people have about earthquakes is that help will be readily available.
“People don’t realize when an earthquake happens you will be on your own. If you look to events – Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy – it takes time for supplies, for help to come in.”
Barbara Hopkins came over from Nanaimo for the day to attend the event. She belongs to a block watch group that represents about 180 people, including many seniors. After the 90-minute workshop wrapped up, she said it was worth the trip.
“It brought a number of things that we hadn’t thought about… the grab-and-go bag. We’re starting to think about identifying people in our neighbourhood that are at risk, so that someone can check on them.”
For those who don’t have a “grab-and-go bag” stashed away at home, Emergency Management B.C. has compiled a list of things that would help keep you safe and comfortable for the 72 hours you could expect to spend alone. You can also sign your family or organization up for The Great British Columbia Shake Out. On October 16 at 10:16 (clever, no?), BC Earthquake Alliance is calling on all British Columbians to drop, cover, and hold on.
Both Kloosterboer and Hopkins hope to see more British Columbians actively planning for the big one, should it strike.
“I think it’s every citizen’s responsibility to play the part they can, which means be prepared and help other people, know who to go to, and respect authority when the time comes,” Hopkins says.
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