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Province slow to review earthquake readiness

Experts claim British Columbia is overdue for a major earthquake that could cause deaths and damage, but the March 11-announced probe of the province's readiness doesn't appear to be in a rush to get going.

Three years after a devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked Japan, Attorney General Suzanne Anton announced ex-Liberal solicitor general John Les and San Francisco emergency and security consultant Henry Renteria would co-chair a panel to study the province's readiness.

Les's appointment, worth $140,000, was cancelled a day later. Premier Christy Clark said in March 12 Question Period that she "became aware of the details of the contract yesterday afternoon" and "agreed with the Attorney General that the offer will be withdrawn -- has been withdrawn."

During the same Question Period, Anton said "the number on one of those contracts was too high, so we will proceed on the consultation with the one contractor alone."

Documents obtained via Freedom of Information show that the Ministry of Justice held a five-hour March 10 planning meeting. It involved Les, Renteria, deputy solicitor General Lori Wanamaker, assistant deputy minister of Emergency Management B.C. Pat Quealey, project manager Cameron Lewis, communications director Jeff Groot and executive advisor Barbara Greeniaus.

From 1:15 p.m. to 2 p.m., Groot made a presentation on plans for communications and public education, media relations protocol, news release and communications contact cards.

A March 11 email, sent by Wanamaker to members of the deputy ministers' council, was under the subject "Emergency Management Consultation." It said from April to June, Les and Renteria would hold meetings and roundtables in regions at highest risk of seismic events.

"All levels of government, the media, business, local authorities including First Nations, federal and state jurisdictions, and non-governmental organizations will have opportunities to engage in these discussions."

EMBC was to look into into the level of readiness among B.C. residents and determine the best way to raise awareness and educate citizens to prepare for a major earthquake or tsunami. "We anticipate the public education campaign will launch this summer," said the memo.

After Les's appointment was rescinded, Renteria, who was director of emergency services under California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger from 2003 to 2009, was named the sole chair.

Asked April 16 for an update on the panel's activities and the plans for an advertising campaign, the ministry released a statement by email:

"The specifics of the consultation (including dates/locations) are still in development, but when the locations are confirmed, they will be announced publicly. The public education campaign, which will be informed, in part, by the results of the consultation process, is still in an information gathering phase. There has not been a budget allocated to the public education component at this time and no decision on how or what materials will be developed."

The memo said the review board announcement was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami (which killed almost 16,000 people), the 50th anniversary of the March 27, 1964 Alaska earthquake that caused a tsunami which hit Port Alberni, and to precede the Office of the Auditor General's report on EMBC earthquake preparedness.

Auditor General Russ Jones's March 25 report was the fifth major study since 1997 and concluded the government is still "not adequately prepared for a catastrophic earthquake."

"Since this Office's report in 1997, successive governments have decided to allocate scarce public resources to meet more immediate pressing demands, rather than to adequately prepare the province for a catastrophic earthquake that may or may not occur," Jones wrote.

"As a result, EMBC, the government organization tasked with leading the Province's response to a catastrophic earthquake, has not fulfilled this part of its mandate."

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin has reported for local, regional, national and international media outlets since he began as a journalist in 1990.

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