Barb Morgan says the district’s emergency program is ready to be activated at a moment’s notice.

Barb Morgan says the district’s emergency program is ready to be activated at a moment’s notice.

‘Not if we get a ‘quake, but when’

B.C.’s strongest earthquake in decades is wake-up call

The talk on Twitter was, why did it take so long?

Why, asked one Tweeter, did it take Emergency Info BC until 8:55 p.m. to issue a tsunami warning and to tell the world that a 7.7M earthquake struck 40 kilometres south of Sandspit, near Haida Gwaii, about an hour earlier Saturday.

“Even CBC had you beat,” said tweeter Neil Blake.

“Hey, where are you?” asked journalist Bob Mackin.

“Didja hear about the Haida Gwaii earthquake? he asked Emergency Info B.C. at 8:49 p.m. that night, six minutes before Emergency Info BC tweeted its first warning.

“Thanks! We’re on it! Just confirm intel! Accuracy first!” Emergency Info BC tweeted back.

While Emergency Management BC was grilled by the media Monday about its tsunami warnings in the earthquake aftermath, emergency response is a simpler affair in Maple Ridge.

“We don’t have to wait for that [notification from Emergency Management B.C.’s] to go into response mode,” said Barb Morgan, Maple Ridge’s emergency program assistant.

“We’re ready to go at a moment’s notice. We get that [local] call and we’re in action,” with or without Emergency Management BC’s participation. That agency could be contacted later if the scope of a disaster increases and they need provincial help, she added.

However, if an earthquake hit Maple Ridge, “We would get notification from the province that that’s exactly what’s gone on. But we don’t have to wait for that to go into response mode,” Morgan explained.

Normally, police or firefighters answer any calls immediately, and if the crisis spreads, the District of Maple Ridge activates its emergency operations centre.

Unlike coastal cities, Maple Ridge doesn’t have to depend on a tsunami warning from an earthquake that may not have been felt or heard.

Maple Ridge or Pitt Meadows are too far inland to worry about a tidal wave. “Maple Ridge, we don’t know how it’s going to affect us, but in Vancouver, it’s [an earthquake] is accompanied with a tsunami.

“They’re at risk.”

While the weekend’s earthquake was of no consequence to Maple Ridge, the event did get Morgan thinking.

Her first thought was, “Holy Mackerel … is this the start of it?”

Three small quakes preceded the big quake in 2011 in northern Japan, she pointed out.

“The Lower Mainland was fortunate in that the epicentre was up in Haida Gwaii.

“It’s a reminder that we have to make sure we have a plan in place. It’s not if we get an earthquake, it’s when.”

The quake hit the week after B.C. conducted its Shake Out drill, in which about 590,000 people across the province participated.

“We’re living in an earthquake-prone area, that is a fact.”

Another aftershock hit the area on Monday night, at 7:49 p.m. and measured at 6.2M and was located 188 kilometres south of Masset at a depth of 9.7 kilometres. Since Saturday’s earthquake there have been more than 75 aftershocks around Moresby Island, ranging from 4.0 to 6.3 magnitude.


Slow response?

Provincial emergency officials were peppered with questions Monday about why it took almost an hour to relay information on social media about Saturday’s earthquake.

Why not use Twitter to immediately inform the public, Emergency Management B.C. was asked during a conference call Monday.

Executive-director Chris Duffy explained during that the incident is under review, but pointed out local authorities were told immediately after the information came from the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre.

Duffy said that regional operation centres were notified 12 minutes after receiving notice from the Alaska centre of the earthquake. Regional authorities then contacted local authorities.

Other communities, where only tsunami advisories were issued, were told later. No evacuations are needed for advisories, although people are told to stay off the beaches.

But reporters asked why it took 50 minutes for the public to be notified.

Emergency Management BC reiterated that staff made phone calls in order of priority and that information had to be verified with supervisors before it was tweeted.  The public was warned about 40 minutes after the quake, it added. The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre website crashed because of overload.

One questioner said it still wasn’t clear why it took almost an hour to notify B.C. Ferries of a possible tsunami, while another pointed out that Kititmat firefighters didn’t get a warning until an hour after the quake.

Another asked about a televised warning that could be broadcast similarly to an Amber Alert. That’s currently being worked on, media was told.

Staff also replied that feeling the earthquake itself is the warning to seek higher ground in case of a tidal wave.

However, the use of social media in getting out warnings is being reviewed. A  “small but mighty” social media team is working on that issue.

The shake was a “great and powerful” reminder of the need to have an emergency plan and make sure you can implement that plan, Duffy added.

Maple Ridge’s emergency program assistant Barb Morgan said the district’s communication strategy includes all media, including Twitter, but it can’t guarantee minute-to-minute updates.

“As the event develops we will provide information to the public as quickly as to what details become available to us.”


Local schools OK if ‘Big One’ hits

Schools in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows are in good shape to withstand a major earthquake like the 7.7 one that struck off the coast of Haida Gwaii this past weekend.

Under the province’s new seismic safety requirements, no schools in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District fall into the High 1 or High 2 categories, which are the most in need of seismic upgrades.

Only parts of two schools in the district, Westview secondary and Fairview elementary, are in the High 3 category.

“Isolated failure of building elements such as walls are expected,” at High 3 category schools in the event of a major earthquake, according to the Ministry of Education’s Seismic Mitigation Program.

“We are in much better shape than a lot of other districts, that’s for sure,” said district facilities manager Rick Delorme. “With [High 1] and [High 2], there’s a real concern for loss of life, [High 3] is less of a concern.”

Older multi-storey brick buildings generally pose the biggest safety risk in an earthquake. However, of the 31 schools in the district, the vast majority are single-storey structures, built with modern construction methods.

“The high priority work has already been done,” Delorme added.

The $22-million renovation to Garibaldi Secondary School in 2009 featured extensive seismic upgrades, including the demolition and replacement of an unstable two-story brick wing.

“Everything that could have gone wrong, would have gone if there was an earthquake,” said Delorme of the aging school wing. “Even by 1970s construction standards, it was in bad shape.”

Maple Ridge secondary was assessed as a High 2 category in 2004, but under the province’s new requirements, revised this year, was reduced to Medium.

“The geotechnical standards have changed, and they know now that buildings stand up better based on how they are attached to their surrounding buildings,” Delorme said.

The cost for upgrades to Westview and Fairview were both pegged at under $500,000 during the province’s 2004 assessment. However, the cost to do the work today would be much higher, said Delorme.

Funding will come from the province’s Seismic Mitigation Program.

In the past 10 years, the provincial government has spent more than $800 million on seismic upgrades to schools around the province.

This past May, the province committed more than $122 million for upgrades to 14 schools.

Given the relatively low priority of the projects at Westview and Fairview compared to others around the province, funding could take five to 10 years, Delorme estimates.


– By Robert Mangelsdorf