ENVIRO NOTES: The importance of being prepared

Earthquake rankings shouldn't calm our need for action

By a strange coincidence of timing, the auditor general’s report on earthquake readiness came out soon after an international assessment of global vulnerability to natural phenomena was released, and now we have another local, magnitude 6 earthquake to consider.

The AG criticized successive provincial governments for failure to prepare for the major earthquake which, according to the geological record, will strike B.C. at some future, unpredictable time.

That report, Mind the Risk – a global ranking of cities under threat from natural disasters, was prepared for the Swiss international insurance organization, SwissRe. The authors considered 616 conurbations housing 1.7 billion people and contributing 50 per cent of international GDP. They noted that, by 2050, 70 per cent of the world population will live in cities.

The study looked at five phenomena – earthquakes, river floods, storm surges, tsunamis and windstorms.

Their general conclusion is that cities in China, Japan, Philippines and Taiwan are the most at risk. Africa, Australia and eastern South America are perhaps the safest areas. While the San Andreas fault in the Pacific Northwest is well recognized, the North Anatolian fault in the Middle East threatens Tashkent and Tehran and deserves more attention.

Beside the immediate physical damage earthquakes cause, they may also result in soil liquefaction which can itself be very damaging.

To put their findings in perspective, the authors cite Hurricane Sandy, which killed 72 people and caused damage estimated at $68 billion – and it was just an average wind storm!

Damage by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan was assessed at between $210 billion and $300 billion, while that same year the Bangkok flood, the largest freshwater flood on record, resulted in $47 billion worth of damage.

Eight of the 10 cities most at risk to windstorms are in east Asia, and the only North American city listed, Miami, ranks 23rd.

While east Asian cities rank highest for storm surge damage, Amsterdam/Rotterdam is also at risk but it is well protected, unlike New York, which, as Hurricane Sandy showed, is ill-prepared.

Japan is most at risk from tsunamis and the Pacific Northwest is at medium risk. Sub-duction earthquakes result in bigger, stronger tsunamis than are caused by slip/slide quakes; both types are possible along B.C.’s coastline and even quite small tsunamis can cause major local damage.

Amongst the 10 cities most vulnerable in terms of area and people affected, the only North American one, ranked ninth, is Los Angeles.

Metro-Vancouver rates quite low on the global scale of vulnerability, but that is far from signifying that preparations are unnecessary. Seismologists expect that the area will experience a major earthquake – possibly an 8 or 9 on the Richter scale – sometime in the future.

Perhaps the only question is when will it happen?

If last month’s San Francisco quake isn’t a precursor, it’s at least a reminder of the Boy Scouts’ motto to ‘be prepared.’

Is it time for us to emulate Mexico City’s MultiCat bond program of risk mitigation, risk modeling, with trade and parametric insurance? This allows government to prepare against quake and hurricane damage.

There’s also the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction release ‘Making Cities Resilient.’

Experience and advice are readily available; are we prepared to heed and apply them communally and individually?

Dr. Roy Strang writes monthly for the Peace Arch News. rmstrang@shaw.ca

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