Know Your Neighbour

Gregor Craigie wants you to get ready for the Big One

In his new book, On Borrowed Time: North America's Next Big Quake, CBC radio hosts Craigie walks us through what we need to do to prepare individually and as a society

By Megan Clark
October 25, 2021
Know Your Neighbour

Gregor Craigie wants you to get ready for the Big One

In his new book, On Borrowed Time: North America's Next Big Quake, CBC radio hosts Craigie walks us through what we need to do to prepare individually and as a society

By Megan Clark
Oct 25, 2021
CBC's Gregor Craigie is the author of On Borrowed Time: North America's Next Big Quake. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
Know Your Neighbour

Gregor Craigie wants you to get ready for the Big One

In his new book, On Borrowed Time: North America's Next Big Quake, CBC radio hosts Craigie walks us through what we need to do to prepare individually and as a society

By Megan Clark
October 25, 2021
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Gregor Craigie wants you to get ready for the Big One
CBC's Gregor Craigie is the author of On Borrowed Time: North America's Next Big Quake. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

Walking down Johnson Street earlier this week, I found myself peering up at the buildings that frame its lower reaches—not at their colourful facades, charming shop signs, or genial gables, but for unreinforced masonry. I am looking at the direction the bricks have been laid. I am wondering about the supporting beams. 

I have recently read CBC host and reporter Gregor Craigie’s book, On Borrowed Time: North America’s Next Big Quake, and I’m planning out my escape route to higher ground while I stand in the coffee line. 

Craigie himself had his first moment like this when he worked as a reporter at the BC Parliament Buildings in downtown Victoria. The impressive and iconic structures, described by the press of its era as “fancy birdcages,” are not seismically sound. If shaken, these birdcages, in which hundreds of people go to work every day, could collapse. Going to work in the doomed building every day, Craigie was staggered by the complacency of the people around him, who knew their workplace could collapse at any moment.

It wasn’t that they didn’t know. But humans have a hard time wrapping their heads around distant risks, even if those risks are almost certain to turn into reality at some point or another. He found that approach has effectively paralyzed action in Victoria to prepare—both at a societal level and an individual one—for the big one we all know is coming. 

Our wakeup call

As Craigie started putting more time into reporting on earthquakes he realized the legislative buildings were just the beginning. “Half of downtown could make you wonder, if not worry,” he told Capital Daily. And he did wonder, and worry, and then he started to ask questions about why Victoria wasn’t better prepared. It took on new urgency after seeing what happened in Christchurch in 2011. 

“Christchurch was our wakeup call,” Craigie says. British Columbia could no longer comfort itself with the silly falsehood that earthquakes only devastated less developed countries. Those who visited Christchurch prior to the earthquake often say how similar it felt to the cities of the Pacific coast. When the mayor of Christchurch visited Seattle to speak to local emergency experts, she commented on the attractive downtown—its heritage buildings housing coffee shops, workspaces, and charming apartments (sound familiar?)—and warned Seattle that they may be on “borrowed time,” Craigie writes. 

The 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck Christchurch caused soil liquefaction and surface flooding. Two city buses were crushed by falling buildings. The entire six-storey Canterbury Television building collapsed, trapping nearly everyone inside and killing 115 people. Many more buildings collapsed or were damaged beyond repair. Eighty percent of the city was left without power. One hundred and eighty-five people died. 

Similarly to Victoria, many of the downtown heritage buildings were not seismically sound. Many of them had failed recent inspections. As of 2015, 1,240 buildings have been demolished in the downtown radius of the quake as a result of damages. The fault that caused all this damage was not even one that was known to authorities. 

Victoria is not alone in its slow action. Seattle tried to compel owners to strengthen vulnerable buildings in the 1970s. The pushback, mostly due to the financial strain on owners, means that more than 1,000 buildings where more than 30,000 people work or live remain vulnerable. 

Likewise, Vancouver has delayed adequate action for decades. At the time of writing, there is still no comprehensive strategy to retrofit vulnerable buildings. But Craigie tips his hat to the work being done in Victoria with regards to school safety: while the program is over budget and blowing its deadline, the work continues and is ultimately doing important work. But there is much more that could be done. 

EARTHQUAKE WARNING

We are not without models for more aggressive action. You only need to look to countries that have experienced the devastating impacts of earthquakes to find it. In San Francisco, studies revealed that two, three and four-storey buildings with a soft ground floor (like a building with big street-level windows or retail space) would collapse. So City Hall leapt into action. Firm retrofit deadlines were set and any building that wasn’t reinforced past the deadline had a giant sign stating “EARTHQUAKE WARNING” in all capital letters pasted on the front door. Owners couldn’t charge rent in buildings deemed unsafe. 

Victoria has had a few modest retrofit programs and financial incentives but there is little action comparable to California. A 2017 Association of Professional Engineers report said that in the two worst-case scenarios for the city of Victoria two out of every three buildings would need to be torn down. 

In light of these sobering comparisons and forecasts, Craigie asks, “Isn’t that a significant enough risk that our governments, collectively, should be doing something more proactively to address it?” 

Craigie, after completing his own preparation steps, hired an engineer to look at his own house's safety. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily


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'The longer you live in a place and nothing happens, the more confident you feel.'

While in some ways the book reads as an unending march through a series of nightmare scenarios with Craigie acting as the Ghost of Earthquakes Past, Present and Future, fortunately, the comprehensively researched and unapologetically honest book also functions as a fascinating and strangely reassuring guide to getting better prepared. 

The Pacific coast is the most earthquake-prone part of Canada, and yet concern over this fact seems to occupy far less time in the collective consciousness than it should. 

“The longer you live in a place and nothing happens, the more confident you feel,” Craigie says.

In face of the overwhelming requirements of preparation, he preaches moderation and small steps. 

Quoting organizational psychologist Robert Gifford, he says, “You can’t stop the earthquake from happening, but you can stop it from killing you.” For this, Craigie tells me there are three things Victorians need to know, are capable of doing, and can start doing today. 

  1. Get an earthquake emergency kit ready for your house. 
  2. Pay attention to the buildings you spend the most time in. 
  3. Talk to your neighbours. 

The preparations that experts like Prepared BC and Victoria Ready recommend include a full emergency kit that contains first aid supplies, cash, extra sets of clothing, and non-perishable food for three days to a couple of weeks.  

Secondly, ask, “Is my building safe?” This step is not always affordable or accessible for everyone. “I don’t think there is such a thing as an earthquake-proof building, but there is such a thing as doing accessible and hopefully affordable improvements to buildings,” Craigie says.

Finally, talk to your neighbours. In his research, Craigie discovered one of the most important indicators of resilient communities was cooperation. One earthquake survivor noted that he felt safer in West Oakland than Kitsilano because the community cohesion in Oakland was so strong. Working with your neighbours will go a long way in any emergency. 

Craigie, for himself, has completed his three steps and hired an engineer to look at his home.

But, of course, it is not simply up to individuals to prepare by packing emergency kits and working out plans with their neighbours. Serious and ongoing commitment from all levels of government is necessary. 

“Governments have taken the easy road, the easy offramp,” Craigie says. “We collectively don’t know what it’s like… most people haven’t lived through something like that. And for politicians, it is the same thing.” 

“I immediately started thinking… I want to be ready for this.” 

It was Labour Day, 1985. The car accident happened in moments. Craigie, then aged 12, was seriously injured, his sister more so, and his father died. While earthquakes and car accidents are different, Craigie emphasizes, there is something that changes when a person experiences the “one-in-a-million” event. Life is not the same afterward, and Craigie credits this realization to jumpstarting his thinking when he moved to BC from Alberta many years later. “I immediately started thinking… I want to be ready for this,” he says. “What seems like hyper-vilgilence to people who haven’t lived through something seems reasonable to someone who has.” 

On Borrowed Time will give you nightmares but it will also soothe those very nightmares. It is a book about risk and risk mitigation. It is a call to action for individuals, but more importantly, it inspires a call to action for governments. 

“We will be lucky if this doesn’t happen for another hundred years, but if it happens 10 years from now…” Craigie trails off. We, collectively, know what that could look like. We may not all have the memory of a trauma like an earthquake or a car accident or any number of tragic scenarios that can change an entire life in an instant, but we have those stories and we have the science.

A month ago, a volcanic eruption began in the Canary Islands and continues to unleash a series of seismic tremors, the largest measured 4.4. Craigie, coincidentally, had written about it in his book: the possibility that an earthquake in that very place would set off a tsunami that could cross the Atlantic. That worst-case scenario hasn’t happened, but the earthquake’s timing is a fresh reminder that the book is not speculative.  

Vigilance, not panic or complacency, is the ultimate message of On Borrowed Time and one whose wisdom ought to be taken seriously by both individuals and all levels of government. Right this moment, we need to be soberly and thoughtfully preparing for the inevitable, even if we don’t know when the inevitable will happen. “We shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand, or set our hair on fire,” Craigie says. “I can say that, having done both myself.” 

contact@capitaldaily.ca

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