Uncertain Timing of Catastrophic Calamity

Back in 1991 daughter-in-law Susan Mayse wrote a book – Earthquake – preparing for the big one. It’s still in print at a fraction of first publication cost.

Her husband, my son Stephen, penned a series of articles for the Vancouver Sun some years ago and has now been hammering the pending earthquake-tsunami disaster theme at irregular intervals for close to 25 years.

Last year Margaret Munro, another daughter-in-law, wrote on “the big one” for the Postmedia Network in December 2014. For many years Margaret (married to son Mark who toils in the Globe and Mail Vancouver bureau and touches on earthquakes and other hazards to the environment from time to time) specialized in science and technology. She has more trophies for journalistic excellence in the field than the rest of the extended family put together.

Let me add quickly – we are not a family combine. We each do our own thing, independently, but have been known to engage in vigorous post-publication debate.

Back to Margaret and her article published in the Vancouver Sun last year just before she and other top flight reporters became victims in a Postmedia staff dismantling operation.

She wrote: “The pressure has been building for more than 300 years.

“A giant slab of rock sliding in from the Pacific is exerting so much pressure on the west coast of North America it is warping Vancouver Island, tilting it higher and squeezing it a few centimeters eastward every year….One day the strain will be released in an instant and a catastrophic earthquake will rip down the west coast from British Columbia to northern California…”

In the July 20 edition of The New Yorker that prestigious journal published a lengthy article by writer Kathryn Schulz, who to the best of my knowledge has not even a remote ancestral link with anyone in my extended family.

The article – headlined “The Really Big One” – embraced all the points made in earlier Mayse-Munro-Hume articles but confines the earthquake-tsunami destruction to “the northwest edge of the continent from California to Canada……by the time the shaking has stopped and the tsunami has receded (emergency measures officials say) ‘our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.’ “

Just an American event.

The article suggests “everything west of Interstate 5 (includes) Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem, Olympia and some seven million people.” It estimates the death toll will be close to 13,000 with 27,000 injured, one million homeless with emergency food and water required for two and half million more.

It would be comforting to think the devastation would be confined to the USA but, alas, as Margaret Munro pointed out last December the 1,139 kilometre Cascadia subduction zone reaches far beyond the 49th parallel. It lies with all its menace just off the west coast of Vancouver Island. For three days (June 7-10) next year Emergency Management BC (EMBC) is planning to hold the first ever provincially led earthquake-tsunami response exercise – Exercise Costal Response – in the Port Alberni region.

It’s an exercise long overdue and urgently needed but some early advisories are concerning. One says the exercise will “involve the real-time deployment of the Provincial Coordination Team a cross- government group that can be activated to bring support to a local authority in an emergency including the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team from Vancouver.” That sounds comforting in theory – but if Victoria and Vancouver are to get as battered as the experts predict, will there be enough Heavy Urban Search and Rescue teams to respond to a call for help from Port Alberni or Nanaimo or any other coastal community in desperate need?

Like many other citizens I have paid attention to early warnings and have a survival kit packed for a few days if I survive the shake and tsunami wave. But I am not prepared for a lengthy wait while Calgary and Edmonton – our nearest Canadian cities capable of major relief efforts get help across the mountains to the coast.

It sounds pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? But think –  survivors will be comforted by the knowledge it will be another 300 to 500 years before the next big one. Enough time to address today’s problem as presented by Ms.Schulz in the New Yorker:”The Cascadia situation, a calamity in its own right, is also a parable for this age of ecological reckoning and the questions it raises are ones that we all now face. How should a society respond to a looming crisis of uncertain timing but of catastrophic proportions? How can it begin to right itself when its entire infrastructure and culture developed in such a way that leaves it profoundly vulnerable to natural disaster?”

Think about it carefully in this 11th hour and any suggestions will be gratefully received.


  1. Yes, “just an American event,” but I wouldn’t relax. The New Yorker writer has never heard of Canada or, if she has a geographic inkling, believes it to be uninhabited.

    My only suggestion is to include several bottles of scotch in your survival kit.

  2. If we survive the big one at all, it will be those of us seniors who survived the WW2 war times who will know how to cope with surviving. I am not sure the younger generations will know how to cope!

  3. Interesting piece as always, Jim. You might be interested in this short note I received from a geologist friend (now retired) apropos of discussing the same topic with him:

    “.. Here’s the link to the New Yorker article that we were discussing. I’ve checked a map and confirmed that the Cascadian Subduction Zone extends from northern California all the way to the north end of Vancouver Island. However, the geology and physiography of the area north of the Olypmics is different from that to the south, so perhaps the quake he describes may not play out up here quite like he describes for the Washington/Oregon coast, but it would nevertheless be a big problem.”

    So maybe a faint hope that the Big One won’t be quite as devastating as the New Yorker piece suggests.

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