The Most Doomed City in Canada

What the Big One will do to Victoria

By Tristin Hopper
September 15, 2019

The Most Doomed City in Canada

What the Big One will do to Victoria

By Tristin Hopper
Sep 15, 2019
Illustration by Dash Dixon
Illustration by Dash Dixon

The Most Doomed City in Canada

What the Big One will do to Victoria

By Tristin Hopper
September 15, 2019
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The Most Doomed City in Canada

The first thing you hear is breaking glass; hundreds of liquor and wine bottles shaking free from their moorings and shattering on the floor. A spreading puddle of premium alcohol has already begun to lap at your feet when the gasps and nervous laughter around you turn to screams. Beneath all of this cacophony is a sound you’ve never heard before: a low, omnipresent rumbling, like being underneath a speeding freight train. It is the sound of the earth being torn apart.  

After years of warnings, the Big One has finally arrived, and you’re unlucky enough to be inside the main dining room of The Empress; arguably one of the most seismically unstable buildings in the entire city.

While no building is guaranteed to come down in an earthquake, the Empress – at least the original 1908 section where you now sit – is a sickening combination of unreinforced brick built atop reclaimed swamp land. The earth underneath the Empress is so soft that in the hotel’s first 10 years it sank by as much as four feet, and that was without any whiff of an earthquake.

A small crowd of panicked diners sprint outside. Through the windows you can see them struck by a rain of slate shingles before your vision is blocked entirely by thick, white dust as the hotel’s century-old plaster begins to crack. As you dive under your table, you can only hope that the five storeys of groaning brick and stone above your head will miraculously survive the violence and spare you the fate of being entombed inside B.C.’s grandest hotel.

Photograph of rescuers attempting to free trapped guests within the rubble of Hotel Montana
In this photo taken in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, rescuers attempt to free trapped guests within the rubble of the Hotel Montana, one of the country’s most luxurious hotels. (Credit: U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist First Class Joshua Lee Kelsey)

Victorians live in one of the most doomed cities in Canada. It is a scientific certainty that the B.C. capital will be visited with a scale of civic destruction not seen in this country since the 1917 Halifax Explosion. Faced with a 50 per cent chance of a major quake happening within the next 80 years, it is more likely than not that many of the future victims of the Big One are already alive. Despite it all, Victoria often continues to act like a city that doesn’t stand on the brink of catastrophe.

“Victoria, more so than Vancouver, has highly vulnerable buildings, and a very high earthquake hazard,” said John Sherstobitoff, a leading Vancouver-based seismic engineer.  

The B.C. capital has the unique curse of being simultaneously threatened by several types of earthquakes at once. It is the closest Canadian population centre to the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the coming-together of two major tectonic plates that will eventually slip and yield “the Big One,” an earthquake expected to be a magnitude nine or greater. The city also sits directly atop a fault line, the Leech River fault, that can cause highly destructive shallow earthquakes. Victoria is also imperiled by “inslab” earthquakes—small slips from deep within the subduction zone that can radiate upwards.

Compounding the hazard is that Victoria is one of the oldest cities in Western Canada. The same brick buildings and historic homes that make the city a magnet for tourism are also the most vulnerable to the destructive power of an earthquake. Many of those buildings also stand atop soft soil expected to intensify the effects of any shaking.

A “Big One” level earthquake could be expected to kill up to 1,500 people in B.C., utterly dwarfing any disaster that has yet struck the province in modern times.

Earthquakes are different than the other types of disasters known to threaten Canadian cities. Kelowna prepares for a city-gutting forest fire that may never come. St. John’s braces for a direct hit by a hurricane which might never occur. But in Victoria, it is an inescapable certainty that the city will become the victim of one of the greatest natural disasters in modern Canadian history.

“There is 100% chance of major earthquakes striking Victoria, but we can’t answer the question of when exactly,” said Lucinda Leonard, a seismic hazard expert at the University of Victoria.

According to the B.C. Earthquake Immediate Response Plan, a “Big One” level earthquake could be expected to kill up to 1,500 people in B.C., utterly dwarfing any disaster that has yet struck the province in modern times. Since the colonization of Vancouver Island, the worst single loss of life in the region’s history remains the 1875 sinking of the SS Pacific, which killed 275 people.

In 2016, the City of Victoria commissioned a “building by building” seismic assessment to figure out just how much of the city might be imperiled by a major quake. The results are disquieting: More than 85 per cent of the city’s buildings predate any consideration of construction for earthquake resilience. In an absolute worst case scenario, up to 65% of all buildings in the City of Victoria could be “red-tagged,” rendering them unfit for human habitation.

Map showing earthquake damage map of Victoria in a worst case scenario
Earthquake damage map of Victoria in a worst case scenario. Anything coloured red is expected to suffer “complete” damage, meaning buildings will either collapse or require demolition after the fact. (Credit: Photo illustration by The Capital layering V.C. Structural Dynamics Ltd. map over satellite image of Victoria)

The areas fated to be hardest hit by the quake also happen to be the city’s centres of commerce, tourism and political power. Chinatown, Market Square, Capital Iron, Phillips Brewing, Bay Street Armoury, the Old Spaghetti Factory and Bastion Square are all in areas where the likely level of destruction is rated as “complete.” The buildings within these red zones may survive the initial shaking and spare their occupants, but they are expected to be damaged beyond repair.

The B.C. Parliament Buildings, for example, have been cited as some of the most seismically vulnerable structures in the entire province. Should the earthquake occur during a parliamentary session, B.C. would be left with the terrifying prospect of much of its political leadership being killed or trapped under tonnes of plaster, granite, and weathered copper.  

Photograph of the rubble of the Haiti Presidential Palace in 2010 after a major earthquake
Rubble of the Haiti Presidential Palace in 2010. The front steps of the B.C. Parliament Buildings could look very similar in the aftermath of a major quake. (Credit: UNESCO)

A 2006 seismic analysis of the building by Zeidler Partnership Architects concluded that it was a “real and increasing threat” and that the buildings could one day be the site of a “serious loss of life.” Perhaps more ominously, the Zeidler report warned that the sight of B.C.’s centre of government in ruins could incite the B.C. populace into “civil disorder.”

The city’s many monuments and historic architectural features also have the potential to  transform into deadly projectiles. In a 2009 tragedy in Montreal, a woman celebrating her birthday on an outdoor patio was killed instantly by a 135-kilogram slab of decorative concrete that had broken free above her head. In Victoria – a city flush with outdoor patios built under historic parapets and gables – a host of similar tragedies could play out within seconds.

All it took was a relatively minor magnitude 5.8 earthquake striking Washington, D.C. in 2011 to crack the Washington Monument and bring statues raining down from the city’s national cathedral. In Victoria, a major earthquake could bring down everyone from Captain James Cook to Queen Victoria to Terry Fox. The gardens and lawns outside the B.C. Legislative Library are poised to be pounded by more than 20 life-sized statues pitched off their mounts. Victoria’s famous Ross Bay Cemetery could equally become a mess of fallen granite, marble, and exposed graves.

Photograph of a fallen statue of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott pitched off its plinth by the February, 2011 Christchurch earthquake
A statue of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott pitched off its plinth by the February, 2011 Christchurch earthquake (Credit: Schwede66)

Whole Victoria neighbourhoods are built atop ground that is extremely prone to what is known as “liquefaction,”; a bizarre earthquake phenomenon in which the earth temporarily takes on the properties of water. When a magnitude 7.5 earthquake hit Indonesia last year, amateur video captured a terrifying scene of liquefacted soil swallowing cars and carrying away whole buildings.

According to a detailed map prepared by B.C. government geologists, some of Victoria’s most liquefaction-prone soil lies underneath the Empress and the Victoria Shipyards. Meanwhile, Cook Street Village and Fairfield Plaza are built atop particularly weak patches of soil that are expected to dramatically amplify the effects of any quake.

Virtually every toilet in Victoria’s core could also cease to function. More than 85% of sewage pipes in the City of Victoria predate the Second World War and are made of brittle materials such as clay and brick. Even in a best-case scenario, one third of the sewage system is expected to be wiped out. In a worst-case scenario, 95% of the city’s sewage system is expected to fail.

Victorians looking to evacuate their earthquake-shattered city can expect to effectively find themselves effectively trapped. Ferry terminals are almost exclusively built on fill land in tsunami hazard zones, making them particularly susceptible to destruction. In 2017, two former B.C. Ferries contractors warned that that in a Big One-level quake, virtually all of Swartz Bay would be destroyed.

Map showing Victoria’s highest-risk areas for liquefaction. (Credit: Photo illustration by The Capital layering B.C. Geological Survey Branch data over satellite image)
Map showing Victoria’s highest-risk areas for liquefaction. (Credit: Photo illustration by The Capital layering B.C. Geological Survey Branch data over satellite image)

Meanwhile, a latticework of natural gas leaks will instantly threaten fire and explosion across the city. The 1994 Northridge earthquake that struck just north of Los Angeles kicked off more than 14,000 simultaneous gas leaks, and at least 30 gas-related fires.

In post-disaster forecasts for the west coast of B.C., it is expected that fire will do far more damage than even the most violent shaking. A days-long, out-of-control fire destroyed as much as 500 city blocks in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and much of modern Victoria doesn’t look all that dissimilar from turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Wooden, unsprinklered heritage homes with outdated wiring are one of the most common building types in Victoria’s central neighbourhoods.

Whatever happens, though, a major earthquake will not wipe Victoria off the map. Even in the most catastrophic scenario envisioned by seismologists, most buildings will remain standing and the vast majority of citizens will survive. One of the deadliest North American earthquakes of the last 100 years occurred in Mexico City in 1985. A magnitude eight quake struck a city that is significantly larger than Victoria and built on more unstable soil with weaker buildings. Even then, the death toll was a relatively small 5,000.

“It should not be suggested that an entire town in British Columbia or Canada is going to be flattened by an earthquake,” said Sherstobitoff, who has personally walked through many of the most earthquake-shattered cities of modern times. Even in Kobe, Japan, where a magnitude 6.9 earthquake killed 6,434 people in 1995, Sherstobitoff found a city in which destruction lived side by side with buildings that were completely unscathed.  

For any Victorian looking to imagine their city in the aftermath of a major quake, the closest analogue is the 2011 earthquake that struck Christchurch, New Zealand. The city was founded only 13 years after Victoria, has a near-identical population size, and featured much of the same British colonial architecture in its downtown.

Photograph showing Christchurch street immediately after the February 22, 2011 earthquake
Christchurch street immediately after the February 22, 2011 earthquake. The cars are spray-painted with the word “clear” to indicate that they’ve been checked for bodies (Credit: shelby-dog).

Christchurch was only hit with a magnitude 6.2 quake—smaller than even the most optimistic forecasts for Victoria. Even then, the earthquake killed 185 people and effectively gutted the city’s historic downtown. Latimer Square, a public greenspace comparable to Bastion Square, was transformed into an open-air morgue and triage centre. “Corpses and injured and bloodied people surrounded us. Desperate families milled about hoping for news of loved ones,” wrote then-mayor Bob Parker of his experience walking through the square. Parker had himself been caught inside a partially collapsed building during the quake, and had to endure  three broken ribs as he managed the city’s immediate recovery.

While only two Christchurch buildings suffered complete collapse during the earthquake, more than 1,200 other buildings ultimately had to be demolished due to being damaged beyond repair. Of the 10 tallest buildings in Christchurch prior to the quake, six have now been demolished due to seismic damage. A 16-block section of Christchurch’s core was roped off for months following the disaster, the city’s tourism industry took a hit of $235 million in the year after the earthquake, and the total cost of the rebuild has been estimated at more than CDN$33 billion. For context, the most expensive natural disasters in Canadian history are the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires, which saw insurance payouts of about $3.5 billion.  

Even eight years after the Christchurch earthquake, rubble and semi-collapsed buildings are still a feature of the city. The city’s Christchurch Cathedral, a building finished right around the time of Victoria’s own Christchurch Cathedral, still lies in partial ruin as parishioners attend a temporary “Cardboard Cathedral” nearby. Another historic Christchurch cathedral, the 113-year-old Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, was only recently slated for demolition after it was deemed prohibitively expensive to repair.

Photograph showing the ruins of a Christchurch fish and chips shop destroyed by the earthquake.
The ruins of a Christchurch fish and chips shop destroyed by the earthquake. Miraculously, the one person inside at the time of collapse was not badly injured. (Credit: Martin Luff).

And New Zealanders didn’t have to face the prospect of escaping from the wreckage of their city only to be swamped by a wall of water—a fate that may not spare Victoria. The B.C. capital’s protected position on the east side of Vancouver Island shields it from the worst of any major Pacific Ocean tsunamis expected to inevitably devastate Tofino or Port Alberni. However, Victoria could still be hit by waves triggered either by the initial shaking or any number of subsequent underwater landslides. “You wouldn’t have much warning if you were at the beach,” said Lucinda Leonard.

A tsunami hazard map created by the City of Victoria shows floodwaters striking all along the Gorge and Inner Harbour. The iconic float homes at Fisherman’s Wharf would be hoisted inland like bath toys. The Rock Bay industrial area will be almost completely inundated. The new $110 million Johnson Street Bridge was built in large part because it would survive the shaking from a Big One-level earthquake. Nevertheless, planners neglected to fortify the bridge against the wall of water that would slam into it due to a tsunami at high tide.

Map of Victoria central core showing areas at high risk for tsunami damage/
Map of Victoria central core showing areas at high risk for tsunami damage (Photo illustration by The Capital layering City of Victoria map over satellite imagery).

Despite all of the known warnings, Victoria often seems to forget that it perpetually stands at the threshold of destruction.

Victorian Colin Brown is the archetypal perfect citizen of earthquake country. Every member of his family sleeps within easy reach of a “grab and go” bag packed with clothing for hot and cold weather, a dust mask, a flashlight, an emergency blanket, and food and water for two days. Every family vehicle is loaded up with wind-up radios, food, blankets, gloves, and spare clothing. Those vehicles, by the way, are always kept fully fueled lest they should suddenly need to operate in a city beset by post-disaster fuel shortages.  

At a prior home, Brown not only ensured his house was bolted to its foundation but he even approached his neighbour about bolting their foundation lest the house come lurching into his during an earthquake. “He chose not to do it, which is fine; I can’t force him to do that,” he said. And Brown is utterly baffled by the Victorians who continue to hang heavy pieces of art over their bed’s headboard. “Just – don’t do that anymore, find a super light fabric picture or leave it alone,” he said.

But Brown is in a firm minority of Victorians for whom the realities of living in a subduction zone are top of mind.

Seismic vulnerability has almost zero effect on Victoria real estate prices. A Victoria home can see its price chipped away by poor insulation, rising crime or even allegations of hauntings, but buyers don’t seem to care how likely it is to bury them in debris. A 2017 University of Victoria analysis found that even when buyers have access to block-by-block earthquake hazard maps, they “do not care about the difference in earthquake risk when they trade houses.”

Map showing soil conditions throughout Victoria
A map showing soil conditions throughout Victoria. The redder the soil, the more that the damaging effects of a quake will be amplified (Credit: Photo illustration by The Capital layering B.C. Geological Survey Branch map over satellite image)

Of nearly 2,000 Greater Victoria real estate listings that were active as of this writing, only four made some mention of seismic resilience. As one real estate agent told The Capital, “I’ve always said Victoria is one shaker away from a housing market collapse.”

Insurance providers are similarly agnostic as to a building’s earthquake-proofing. In B.C., insurers set rates based on location and construction type: Premiums do not change if a homeowner pays for a round of seismic upgrades. Victoria has buildings that are LEED-certified for sustainability, but no similar system exists to certify a building’s likely performance in an earthquake. This is in contrast to Japan and even the United States, where the U.S. Resiliency Council assigns buildings with “verified earthquake ratings” at the levels of basic, silver, gold, and platinum.

This isn’t to say that Victoria hasn’t seen its share of seismic retrofits: Victoria City Hall, the Steamship Terminal Building, the eight Greater Victoria schools shored up thus far as part of the province’s $1.6 billion Seismic Mitigation Program. Nevertheless, even new buildings built to modern standards of earthquake resilience continue to feature elements that are oddly out of place for a city in earthquake country. New homes are built with unreinforced brick chimneys fated to topple in even a minor earthquake. New condo towers are adorned with crumble-ready brick cladding.  

Photograph of substantial damage to Seattle’s Pioneer Square can be seen in this photo of the aftermath of the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake
Substantial damage to Seattle’s Pioneer Square can be seen in this photo of the aftermath of the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake. Victoria’s brick-heavy historic areas, such as Chinatown or Johnson Street, can be expected to look far worse in the aftermath of a major quake (Credit: FEMA News Photo by Kevin Galvin)

Compared to earthquake-threatened U.S. cities, Victoria lags significantly on even basic seismic regulations. A 2014 survey out of UBC found that, unlike Los Angeles or San Francisco, Victoria does not require parapet bracing, does not have any mandatory program for retrofitting of   existing buildings, and doesn’t even keep an inventory of how many of its unreinforced masonry buildings have been made earthquake-safe.

Victoria offers rebates for everything from rainwater collection to green upgrades, but little is on the books to urge Victorians to shore up their homes against disaster. One of the only major exceptions is a program of tax breaks that only applies to buildings on the heritage register.

That same heritage register has often inadvertently done the exact opposite of preparing Victoria for disaster. Stringent regulations meant to preserve Victoria’s historical character make it extraordinarily difficult to demolish brittle buildings in favour of an earthquake-ready replacement. After the 108-year-old Plaza Hotel burnt down in May, the building’s owners couldn’t even demolish the building’s flame-scorched brick walls without applying for city permission.

Meanwhile, thousands of Victoria homeowners are neglecting even easy fixes that could shield their properties from ruin. One of the most likely destroyers of heritage homes in a major earthquake is a house being thrust off its foundation. It’s only about $3,500 to do so, and yet the vast majority of older Victoria homes remain unbolted. As for the post-earthquake risk of fire, there is similarly an easy fix that most Victorians haven’t even considered. California valves, which cost about $200, automatically shut off a home’s gas line if it’s hit by heavy shaking. QuakeKoso, the Vancouver-based authorized distributor of California valves, has fitted them to schools and hospitals throughout Coastal B.C. Nevertheless, of 800,000 users of natural gas in B.C., only about 5,000 have opted for the valve.

Provincial officials continue to locate critical offices and priceless artifacts in some of B.C.’s most vulnerable locations. The world’s largest single collection of Emily Carr paintings is held on racks deep in the B.C. Archives. Not only is the building at high risk of collapse, but it is below sea level in an area likely to be swamped by any potential tsunami. The topple-ready B.C. Parliament Buildings are home to one of Canada’s most esteemed collections of rare books including a second Shakespeare folio and letters signed by Oliver Cromwell.

Photograph of a destroyed Los Angeles house in the aftermath of the January 17, 1994 Northridge Earthquake
A destroyed Los Angeles house in the aftermath of the January 17, 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Without seismic upgrades, much of Victoria’s historic homes could suffer a similar fate (Credit: Andrea Booher/FEMA News Photo).

Seismic catastrophe has come to the B.C. coast before, when the last megathrust earthquake struck the area on January 26, 1700. “It was so severe that it made all the people sick, threw down their houses and brought great masses of rock down from the mountains,” a Cowichan elder told the folklorist Charles Hill-Tout in the early 1900s. For countless villages along Vancouver Island’s west coast, the last thing they ever saw was the tide rapidly pulling out to sea before returning in a speeding wall of water. Shaking was felt as far south as modern-day California, and small tsunamis crashed into Japanese villages more than 7,000 kilometres away.

Post-colonial British Columbia has never had to grapple with the biblical levels of destruction faced here by the Indigenous people of 1700. In fact, since Canada’s founding in 1867, fewer than 50 people have been killed in earthquakes on the land now contained within the country’s borders. Ever since colonial times, only a single British Columbian can be said to have been a fatal victim of an earthquake. In 1946, a Vancouver Island boater was drowned by seismic-induced waves when a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck just next to Campbell River.

It’s been an extraordinarily lucky 152 years, but it’s also made it easy for Canadians to be complacent about seismic risk. “If we had an earthquake that killed 100 people, do you think we would change things tomorrow? Absolutely,” said Sherstobitoff.

Sherstobitoff is no doomsayer. He advocates a deliberate, holistic approach to seismic upgrading that accounts for unintended consequences, such as whether upgrade money would be better spent somewhere else. If a hospital can save more lives with an MRI machine than with a round of seismic upgrades, Sherstobitoff would probably recommend they buy the MRI. But when it comes to the urgency with which Canadians view the coming earthquake, he contrasts the B.C. West Coast with Japan, which rarely goes more than a few years without somebody killed by an earthquake. “They’ve lived through earthquakes, they’ve seen buildings damaged in their country on a regular basis by earthquakes – and we haven’t,” he said.

When Victoria’s Plaza Hotel caught fire in early May, it virtually monopolized the city’s emergency services. The four-storey, century-old former strip club venue was ignited by what would later turn out to be arson. In the conflagration that followed, at least 30 firefighters fought the blaze as police managed a partial shutdown of the downtown. City hall was closed due to smoke. CFAX 1070 had to broadcast from a hotel room after it was similarly smoked out of its studio. “And that’s just one building; all the resources were tied up,” said Victoria Police Chief Constable Del Manak.

Amid the spreading fires, dozens if not hundreds could go from calmly working in an office to screaming for help under tonnes of debris. In the wake of the Christchurch earthquake, one survivor, Kento Okuda, recounted the terrifiyng ordeal of having the floor suddenly give way, plunging him into a unique hell of pain and confusion. “Everyone around me was saying things like ‘it hurts’ as they fell downward. And then I realized I was in total darkness with my right leg pinned by something so I couldn’t move.”

As of this writing, the collapsed, fire-scorched Plaza Hotel still lies in ruins. It’s a preview of coming attractions for the surrounding city. When the Big One hits, it’s not inconceivable Victoria could simultaneously be hit with a dozen Plaza Hotel-sized fires, forcing overstretching firefighters to triage which parts of the city to save — if they could even get the water pressure to fight fires at all.

Photograph of the exterior of the Plaza Hotel on September 11, 2019
The exterior of the Plaza Hotel on September 11, 2019. This sight, scorched rubble fenced off for months on end, will be common throughout Victoria for years after a major earthquake (Credit: Tristin Hopper).

For days, thousands will not know whether their loved ones are alive. For anyone who gets through to 911 in those first hours, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to summon anything except verbal reassurance. When the Big One comes to Victoria, the very best case scenario will be living days on end in a ruined city without running water or functional grocery stores.  

Said Manak, “I don’t think people really understand the magnitude.”

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