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Experts hope Japan quake is 'eyeopener' of risks to British Columbians

While nearly half a million British Columbians ducked, covered and held on tight during a province-wide earthquake drill in late January, the other 90 per cent of the population sailed on with their day as usual.

After last week's destructive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, authorities hope the gravity of being prepared for a potential natural disaster on the West Coast hits closer to home.

"We're no different if we were to have an 8.9-magnitude, megathrust subduction-type earthquake here," said Heather Lyle, director of integrated public safety for Emergency Management B.C. "We too would suffer significant impact. I'm quite certain this is an eyeopener."

Were the so-called Big One to land a one-two punch starting about 250 kilometres off Vancouver Island shores, Victoria and about 75 coastal and First Nations communities would be the most vulnerable.

From the moment they felt the earth expel its great rumble, people living in places like Ucluelet, a tourist town along the Island's outer coast, would likely have only about 20 to 30 minutes to escape to higher grounds.

In the popular surfing destination of Tofino, about an hour's drive north, the urgency wouldn't change, but getting to safety would be hampered by long stretches of low-lying beach.

"There are communities for which evacuation may not be an option," said Prof. Barbara Lence, at the University of B.C., who has helmed teams that created computer models of potential tsunamis that could wind up deluging those parts of the Island.

The lurking cause of a massive quake and wave on the West Coast is called the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a region stretching 1,100 kilometres from about two-thirds of Vancouver Island south to Mendocino, California. Should it rupture, an event likely every 300 to 600 years, the land mass could ultimately shift one to 1.5 metres west.

Its last burst was in 1700.

Lence and Bill Johnstone, with Spatial Vision Group in North Vancouver, brought the results of their models to Ucluelet and described the people's reactions as "sobering."

"I guess it dispelled quite a number of myths," Lence said, explaining waves could reach 15 metres in height even though the name of the town means "safe harbour."

Johnstone said once people in such regions manage to withstand heavy trembles, as practised in the earthquake drill, they must make a decision based on the structure of the building.

"You don't stay put, you get up and go," he said, while noting "vertical evacuation" offered by specially-designed buildings was a safeguard present in Japan that Canadians may want to further explore.

Bustling Vancouver would be shielded from water wipe out by Vancouver Island, but also faces the threat of shallow, crustral earthquakes that occur more frequently at lower magnitudes and have the potential to cause more damage, said Perry Adebar, a UBC professor of structural engineering.

Though the province has invested hundreds of millions of dollars retrofitting schools, bridges and other public buildings, he's greatly concerned that thousands of multi-storey, privately-owned buildings weren't build to a code that will hold up in a quake.

"It's all a matter of how intense the ground is shaking," Adebar said. "I actually am the person who hopes for an earthquake that scares everybody and does some damage because we'd be far further ahead ... (for) the possibility of larger earthquakes."

Fortifying existing structures with concrete or more walls to reduce how much they would sway would go a long way to making them safer, he said.

After the Japan quake, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was widely quoted saying buildings in the city are indeed vulnerable.

From the federal government to the province to individual communities, there are a multitude of emergency response plans in place, though the level of preparedness ranges.

A provincial autodialer that makes 1000 calls in 20 minutes to key stakeholders from RCMP to the coast guard activates in crucial situations, and hundreds of emails and faxes are sent immediately as well, said Kelli Kryzanowski, manager of catastrophic disaster planning with Emergency Management B.C.

But British Columbians should at least be ready to go 72 hours alone, her colleague Lyle noted, while currently in Japan its estimated help for some people may not arrive for an entire week. The province would have to prioritize its resources, and could be further delayed if landslides are triggered on the island and power is knocked out.

Kryzanowski said she hopes recent disasters around the world — from Chile to New Zealand to Japan — prompts the public to put preparedness front of mind.

"I think we're starting to become more and more aware that this can happen to us," she said. "We need to experience something to really understand it and that is a challenge we have."

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