In case it’s not already evident from these ramblings, I have a certain pessimistic disposition that rejects hullaballoo, whether its source is real estate agents, politicians, in-laws, or spectacle.
Cavalia produces spectacles. The brain-child of Normand Latourelle, a co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, Cavalia mixes equestrian and acrobatics, dance, aerial stunts, live music, multimedia and special effects to realize “an equestrian ballet” that explores “the fundamental relationship that humans have developed with horses throughout time, a precious bond that enabled us as humans to build bridges between cultures” -discounting of course the Mongol horde, Cossack pogroms, US Cavalry-led genocides etc etc etc. Like I said: pessimistic.
For no good reason that I can discern, complimentary tickets to the opening night Cavalia’s production of Odysseo arrive in my in-box. Instinctively, I move to delete, hesitate, and succumb to a morbid curiousity. I offer the missus the gift of spectacle, and we have a date.
It’s hard to miss the venue. The show -billed as “the world’s largest touring production”- is housed in an enormous tent, itself part of a complex that includes smaller tents, trailers, a corral, gas generators, floodlights, and a harras of late model white automobiles. The compound takes up a good portion of the former city works yard –somehow undeveloped- between the Olympic Village and the Cambie Street Bridge.
As you would expect of such an event, it’s heavily branded and the branding is heavily Pattison: Save-on-Foods has top billing, along with Pattison Group subsidiaries Everything Wine, Sun-Rype etc. And, to mix things up, The Keg.
There’s a concourse, of course, featuring Everything Wine, Sun-Rype etc, windbreakers emblazoned with “Odysseo,” plush horse dolls and glossy $15 programs. Taped to my seat is an envelope stuffed with coupons for things I don’t understand.
I recognize a few people: artists. The lights dim.
This is opening night –there are speeches. In contrast to all the commerce, M. Latourelle pauses in the proceedings. He calls attention to the internationality of the cast, their diverse origins and religious practices. He addresses the violence at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre. His speech is punctuated by at intervals by what sounds to me a cautious applause. Something like that.
Down to business: this production marks an unprecedented return engagement for Cavalia. Latourelle thanks the Vancouver audience and his local partners by relaying a long and not very interesting story of the business that closed the deal.
Out comes Jimmy Pattison. “Expo” Jimmy doesn’t look a day over 110 in his expensive Diefenbakeresque suit. Jimmy’s quick, and hands off to Darrell Whatisname, the beefy guy from the Save-on-Food commercials. He gets the biggest applause so far, so they’ve papered the house with more than artists. Reading from cue cards Darrel makes his way through his speech like an ox in Aisle 3.
Not yet the horses.
Because it’s election season Peter “the public school system can go fuck itself” Fassbender gets a kick at the can, too. He brings greetings from the Premier (Am I hearing groans?) He rambles on about the contribution the arts make to the economy, and all the jobs that Cavalia brings and whatever.
They are beautiful creatures. Their handlers are attractive and talented, energetic and calm. The equine and human acrobatics are impressive, the projected images phantasmagoric, and the whole thing entirely pointless and repetitive. With so much galloping, trailing banners and shouting, I imagine myself watching a dress rehearsal for a Game of Thrones season finale.
By the time the interval comes I’m thinking about Fassbender but not just Fassbender. Peter alongside Jimmy and Normand, a confluence of oligarchs, of control, capital and spectacle; an unprecedented return engagement, in an undeveloped Vancouver lot just an aquabus ride away from the new casino.
I need air.
On my way out, past the stage, I witness one of those new creative jobs in action: shoveling horseshit.
“The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone
Goldman Sachs’ kind walk among us. They’re definitely smaller, a little less conspicuous, but every bit as bloodthirsty. The Beedie sub-species are on display at the 105 Keefer rezoning application open house at the Chinese Cultural Centre. They’re here to observe and spin, in the face of community opposition, a positive impression of the latest iteration of their Chinatown condominium project.
Of course they’re playing the game, making revisions, changing designs. They’re all too willing to shave off a floor, reduce the number of social housing units, and plop some art, somewhere.
But it’s their forth kick at the can. They’re not here to engage in some kind of public dialogue about the cultural life of Chinatown. This is America: time is money. It’s the square footage they want and they’ll take it anyway they can. This is going to happen, by hook, crook, and campaign donation. Patience is running low. The beast must feed.
The tension level is set by the rent-a-thugs at the front door. Beedie’s security drones are thick of limb, thicker of skull, and dead of eye. I saunter past a lunk watching me with all the sentience of an upended chesterfield. Clearly, I’m too legit. With others they take a more hands-on approach.
I enter on a demonstration already in progress: a phalanx of placarded youth are rallying against. Meanwhile, community organizer Melody Ma is being harassed by the aggressively incoherent marketing subordinate Renu Bakshi.
A few City of Vancouver flunkies decorate the periphery, trying their best to blend into the displays. They’re doing well.
Judging by the architectural drawings, Beedie & co. are definitely not wedded to an idea, a “vision.” The concept, if we can call it that, is an out-of scale lump, sporting a few Chinese characters and staggered setbacks.
A street-level passage will invite porousness. It’s fun trying to locate it in the renderings.
And there will be retail and restaurants, if not exactly those depicted.
I thought myself early, but the intrepid Kevin Harding is already here the better part of an hour. He reports a large crowd of very-unlikely locals filling out comment forms and promptly leaving. Stooges, more like, of the lower company echelon variety.
But senior management, the squids proper, remain. In this crowd of the unfashionably but comfortably attired they stand out like highly polished carbuncles – artisanal warts. It’s mostly white male gym jockeys, in form-fitting suits and Italian shoes. I suspect they have lines of credit to accommodate their obviously intensive grooming regimes.
Perusing the bumf, I wander into earshot of well-articulated concern about the private wealth these projects produce for a few and the negative consequences they bring to many others. Bravo.
In response a little company twerp wannabe – sporting a tight suit, a tighter haircut and a flag pole stuck up his ass – offers, “Well, there’s the Community Amenity Contribution.” I snort so hard that I involuntarily power eject a glob of winter mucus out of my left nostril. Not very classy, I know, but I would argue a fitting contribution, given the circumstances.
I wander over the scale model. This is how they see Chinatown: a bland undifferentiated collection of beige polygons begging the gift of their cynical capital.
Squids drift into view. They hover over Chinatown like a pair of outsized, well-healed, coldly calculating aliens, contemplating the lifeforce to be sucked dry. And if its blood they need, the empty lot at Keefer and Columbia is a bulging artery, all too exposed to the funnels that are steadily probing.
Outside, beyond the models and the thugs of various description, in the cold, some other ideas.
1940 to 2017
On December 20, 2016, Translink announced the sale of its Oakridge Transit Centre property.
Previously an army barracks, since 1948 the 5.6-hectare (13.8-acre) site bounded within 37th and 41st avenues and Oak and Willow streets served as a bus depot. At its peak the Oakridge Transit Centre accommodated 244 trolley buses, 182 diesel buses and more than 1,200 staff. By 2006 most services were moved out to TransLink’s Eburne, Hamilton (Richmond) and the Burnaby facilities.
At $440 million, the sale represents the second largest real estate transaction in the province’s history, behind the $480 Jericho land sale also concluded in 2016.
The property is to be developed by Vancouver-based Intergulf Development Group, Richmond-based Kunyuan International Group -a company linked to China-based investors that has acquired more than $740 million in Metro Vancouver real estate over the past three years- and Beijing-based Modern Green Development Co. Ltd. (Developers of the offshore-marketed-by-MAC “sustainably designed” Yu residential project at UBC; “yu” meaning “jade” and jade being green … get it? Cha-ching!)
Curiously, the closed captions of a youtube video on Intergulf’s “conquest of the Cambie corridor” suggests it’s vice-president goes by the moniker Fascist Bus Stop.
With the missus convalescing from a bad cold and that unique form of overexposure caused by family, we opt for an undemanding train ride on the new Evergreen line to deepest darkest Coquitlam.
At Renfrew, we find a love seat with unobstructed views and settle in. Through a world temporarily freeze-dried into an ice-rink, squinting against the sun sitting low in a clear blue sky, we sail over the highway and steadily on through the Eastern Mallships.
At Loughheed Town Centre the train shifts tracks. No longer a circular route sharing a significant portion of the Expo Line, the Millennium Line now runs from VCC Clark to Loughheed Town Centre and back, or -via two-car trains like the one we’re riding- onto the Evergreen Extension to Port Moody and back into Coquitlam.
It starts with a quick confirmation that these above-grade capital megaprojects are less a response than a spur to growth. Pulling out of the station and turning due north, the first thing that greets these tired eyes is a sign for “The City of Lougheed,” a 40 acre master plan community with “23+ stunning high-rise towers, diverse neighbourhoods (sic), shopping and restaurants, striking architecture (sic) and the most connected SkyTrain hub in Metro Vancouver.” If you need something, talk to my Skytrain hub -it’s connected.
The first of the new stops is a local joke that I like to think of as the perineum of Metro Vancouver: Burquitlam. Even here, among the autobody shops, are freshly excavated craters.
Against the concrete and glass bunker with papered-up windows and expensive signage -“The Intersection of Life + Style”- the loose assemblage of unfranchised donair, pizza and coffee shops are the confluence of Living+ Dead. “How long before that turns into a Cactus Club?” she asks, indicating Rhino’s Pub and Liquor Store.
We go underground for a good stretch, turn east again, and resurface at Port Moody –or, rather- “Moody Centre.” (I make a note to stop by the next time I’m suffering the blues.) We pass on the subtle pleasures on offer at Inlet Centre, carry on to Coquitlam Centre, turn north and past Lincoln Centre –actually, just “Lincoln”- and get off at the next and terminal stop, Lafarge Lake-Douglas.
We’re at the foot of the snow dusted Westwood Plateau, itself framed by snow capped mountains. Not all that long ago I knew this place as The Edge of the Civilized World, a where you couldn’t easily distinguish the bears from the yahoos.
Now it’s a civic-commercial nexus, a mix of municipal hall, library and cultural and aquatic centres, with towers and heavily branded malls. (Excepting a surprise clutch of downmarket and idiosyncratic shops and eateries, as well as social service agencies, at Henderson Place.)
Mostly though, it’s just another burgh trading natural capital for a buck. The pines are falling on Pinetree Way, along with the detached homes. In their place a forest of towers and trees made of plastic and fiberglass.
Evergreen? Less green all the time.
This is the second in a series of three posts looking at disasters that have befallen Vancouver in fact and fiction. Fire & the Flood considered a veritable buffet of historic catastrophes, from fire and structural failures, to landslides, debris flows and floods. This posting is dedicated to earthquakes and the next will look at fictional representations of disaster.
Earthquakes occur when interruptions in tectonic plate movements produce sudden slips past one another, collisions or divergences, which release energy in the form of seismic waves that causes the ground to move and shake.
The region comprised of the southwest coast of Canada and the northwest of the United States is one of few areas in the world where all three of these types of plate movements take place, resulting in significant earthquake activity. As the geological and historical record makes clear, earthquakes in this area -including “The Big One”- are an existential reality.
The physics of earthquakes is too complicated for a venue dedicated to wiseassery and snark. What follows is an overview of some basic information to inform a consideration of the history and future of Pacific Northwest earthquakes.
There is a confusing array of systems to measure the energy released by an earthquakes. Thankfully, most magnitude scales have been designed to give numerically similar results. Because these measures of magnitude are a base-10 logarithmic scale, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.0 will be 10 times more powerful than one measuring 5.0, and a magnitude 7.0 quake will release 10 times more energy than a 6.0 and 100 times more energy than a 5.0. The earthquake that struck Japan in 2011 was 10,000 times more powerful than the one that shook the Pacific Northwest on December 29th 2015.
But this is just one consideration. Ultimately, a quake’s destructive capacity depends not only on its strength, but also on location, distance from the epicenter, depth, and duration.
The location below the earth’s surface where the earthquake originates is the hypocenter, while the location directly above it on the surface is the epicenter.
The “Ring of Fire” is an earthquake-prone basin surrounding the Pacific Ocean. Recent years have seen major earthquakes at various points along this ring, including Indonesia, Chile, and Japan. Several significant earthquakes have struck New Zealand in recent years, the latest on November 13th, 2016.
The Cascadia Subduction Zone also forms part of this ring; specifically, it lies west of Vancouver Island and extends from beyond the northern tip of the Island to northern California. The Juan de Fuca plate, which lies about 45 km beneath Victoria and about 70 km beneath Vancouver, is sliding (subducting) beneath the much larger continental plate at rate of about two to five cm/year.
There are three types of earthquakes that have struck -and will again strike- the Pacific Northwest.
The most common is the crustal or shallow crust earthquake . These originate in the North American plate at depths of approximately 30 kilometres. These shallow earthquakes account for the vast majority of the hundreds of small quakes that occur every year within the region.
However, these shallow quakes tend to be more damaging than deeper quakes of comparable magnitude. As seismic waves from deep quakes have to travel farther to the surface and lose energy along the way, small but shallow earthquakes can produce significant damage. This is evident in the August 24th, 2016, earthquake near Accumoli, Italy. The moderate-to-strong quake measured a magnitude of 6.1 but was very shallow, with a hypocentre only five kilometres beneath the surface. The quake produced extensive damage to the brick and mortar structures in the area, essentially levelled the town of Pescara del Tronto, and killed 300 people.
Occasionally, crustal quakes have large magnitudes. Locally they have been recorded up to 7.3.
Crustal quakes tend to produce aftershocks.
The second type is deep, or intraslab, earthquakes. These subcrustal earthquakes are concentrated in two areas within our region: 30 to 40 kilometres below the west coast of Vancouver Island and 50 to 60 kilometres below the Straight of Georgia, within the Juan de Fuca Plate but beneath the North American Plate. The larger earthquakes in the region tend to be intraslab, with a maximum magnitude of about 7. It’s rare for an intraslab quake to produce aftershocks.
A subduction zone or megathrust earthquake is the rarest but by far the most damaging type. At the contact point of two plates, pressures can build and when this becomes excessive can be suddenly discharged. Subduction earthquakes can have magnitudes of 8.0 or larger. The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake of March 11, 2011, had a magnitude of 9.0, enough to move the main Island of Honshu 2.4 metres eastward. The quake caused 16,000 deaths, displaced a quarter of a million people, and produced extensive infrastructure damage. Loses are estimated at US $300 billion. Japan is a leader in earthquake preparedness.
As I write this, Earthquaketrack notes that for a magnitude of 1.5 or greater, across British Columbia there have been 494 earthquakes in the past year, 39 in the past month, 10 in the past seven days, and two earthquakes today. A quake with a magnitude of 3.0 and an epicenter off Port Townsend, Washington, manifested itself around 9:00 AM. (I recall feeling a slight shaking this morning -strong enough to dismiss truck traffic six stories below as the cause.)
While most of these earthquakes are too modest to be felt, on average our region is subjected to a magnitude 5.0 quake every five years, a 6.0 every 20 years, and a magnitude 7.0 every 40 or 50 years.
Subduction quakes appear to strike British Columbia -on average- about every 500 years. Or less. Or more. It’s unclear.
While earthquakes can’t be predicted with any accuracy, the historical record provides a good illustration of the kind of quakes that have hit this area and the damage produced. What follows is an inventory of those local quakes –that is, those tied to the Juan de Fuca plate and the area immediately adjacent on the continental plate. Excluded are several substantial earthquakes recorded near Haida Gwaii and Alaska. This inventory runs from a recent and modest quake -which will serve as a benchmark- to more significant quakes reaching back to 1700.
On December 29th, 2015, at 11:39 PM a 4.7 magnitude earthquake occurred, with an epicenter near Sidney Island off the Saanich Peninsula and a hypocenter about 50 kilometres underneath the Earth’s crust. This moderate intraslab quake was felt from the northern tip of Vancouver Island, south as far as Seattle, and east through the Fraser Valley. Although no damage or injuries were reported, it was the largest earthquake in the region in more than a decade.
Although I was on Bowen Island that night, the situation of my temporary abode on bedrock meant no Hollywood-style ripples disturbing my martini. Of the stories I heard on my return, my mother best quantified the power of the quake. She noted that several pictures were shaken off the walls of her sturdy Vancouver Special. “Moderate,” perhaps, but in her 50 plus years in Vancouver she had never experienced anything similar.
The February 28, 2001, the Nisqually (Ash Wednesday) earthquake near Olympia Washington was also an intraslab earthquake, this one measuring 6.8. Four hundred people were injured, with two indirectly related deaths. Although most of the property damage occurred near the epicenter, damage to the City of Seattle -some 90 kilometres away- totaled $36 million.
The April 29, 1965, Puget Sound earthquake, was an intraslab event measuring 6.7. It caused seven deaths and $12.5 million in damage.
An April 13, 1949, magnitude 7.0 earthquake near Olympia caused eight deaths, many injuries and property damage estimated at upwards of $25 million. At Olympia nearly all large buildings were damaged, water and gas mains were broken, and electric and telegraphic services were interrupted. Near Tacoma railroad bridges were thrown out of line and the quake produced a “tremendous” rockslide.
The 7.3 magnitude quake of June 23, 1946, had its epicenter at Forbidden Plateau near Courtenay. This crustal quake is the largest onshore quake ever recorded in Canada, and was felt from Prince Rupert to Portland. In Vancouver buildings oscillated dramatically, a gas line cracked, war veteran families housed in the Hotel Vancouver fled from an earthquake-induced fire, and the Lions Gate Bridge “swayed like a leaf.” The quake triggered more than 300 landslides, and there were numerous instances of liquefaction -the phenomenon of saturated or partially saturated soil behaving like a liquid– especially along the east coast of central Vancouver Island. Two deaths were attributed to the quake.
On Friday, December 6, 1918, a crustal quake measuring approximately 7.0, with an epicenter near the Estevan Point and Nootka lighthouses and was followed by at least 14 aftershocks. While the quake was felt as far away as Kelowna, no injuries and little damage was reported –in part the result of the limited population residing in the area.
On the afternoon of January 11, 1909, an earthquake measuring 6.0 and centered in the Gulf/San Juan islands was felt throughout the Puget Sound area, including Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle. No damage reported.
On December 15th, 1872, an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 6.5 to 7.0 struck with an epicenter near Lake Chelan in Western Washington. The quake was felt from British Columbia to Oregon and from the Pacific Ocean to Montana. While the quake occurred in a sparely populated area with few structures, the impact was extensive. Landslides were reported throughout the Cascades, including one that blocked the Columbia River for several hours. Fissures also occurred throughout the area -one produced sulfurous water and another generated a 9-meter-high geyser for several days.
These events pale in the face of an earlier cataclysm.
Late on January 26th, 1700, waves reaching a height of five meters struck the east coast of Japan, destroying homes and other structures, generated fires, flooding fields, and other damage and loss of life. A tsunami, but without an earthquake –at least not a local one.
The oral histories of the First Nations along the British Columbia coast –those that survive the population decimations that came with European contact- refer to a cataclysmic event that occurred many generations previously -histories supported by geological evidence.
In the 1980s and 1990s, scientists found substantial evidence that in the early 1700s coastal lands in the Northwest dropped suddenly and were inundated by tsunami waves and mud. From southern Washington to Northern California, carbon dating of spruce, peat and fossilized plants attributed their sudden death to high waters. Pursuing these and other clues, researchers have determined that at about 9:00 pm on January 26, 1700, a 1,000 km stretch of the Cascadia fault “broke”, producing a subduction earthquake with a magnitude of 8.7 to 9.2. The energy released generated waves that crossed the Pacific and hit Japan nine hours later.
Evidence also suggests that 19 megathrust quakes have struck the British Columbia coast over the last 10,000 years.
Another will strike. The Juan de Fuca and Cascadia plates are currently locked and pressure is building. When the tectonic plates on the Cascadia Subduction Zone suddenly slide past each other, the Cascadia plate could spring 10 to 15 metres westward through four or five minutes of intense shaking.
When exactly this energy will be released is uncertain. The odds of such a quake occurring tomorrow are very low. The chances of a such a quake happening in the next 500 years are very high. Most estimates suggest a 10% to 15% likelihood over the next 50 years, although others rate the danger as high as 33% to 37% for the same period.
If a megathrust doesn’t get us, a crustal or subcrustal might. Natural Resources Canada argues that there is a 30% chance of an earthquake big enough to cause significant property damage hitting southwestern B.C. within the next 50 years.
What kind of damage could we expect form a major earthquake? The immediate impact would be intense shaking and, in some places, liquefaction. The associated impact would include almost all the potential disasters highlighted in the previous post on this subject –structural failure and fire, landslides, and coastal flooding.
During an earthquake buildings of unreinforced masonry can collapse or shower bricks to the ground below, while the older generation of brittle-concrete buildings will not flex but crack or break. Seismic building codes were first introduced in Canada in 1953, with modern standards introduced in 1973. Despite all the subsequent development, 60 per cent of Vancouver’s buildings were constructed before the modern building codes were introduced, including such landmarks as the Sun Tower, St. Paul’s Hospitals, Waterfront Station, and Holy Rosary Cathedral, as well as numerous single room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside, many apartments in the West End, and buildings along Kingsway and Broadway and in the Fraser River industrial and commercial zone. And schools: as of a year ago, 342 British Columbia schools still required seismic upgrades, with 128 yet to participate in the upgrade plan. There are 68 high-risk schools in Vancouver alone.
In one City of Vancouver scenario, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake in the Strait of Georgia is estimated to damage 90,000 buildings in Metro Vancouver, 20,000 of them beyond repair. Despite the benefit of the updated seismic codes, those figures could be conservative.
As a BBC documentary on the potential Pacific Northwest megathrust quake notes, building codes have never been tested by such an event: “The lessons haven’t been learned yet.”
Of the nearly 400,000 buildings destroyed in the 2010 Chile earthquake, most were newer high-rises, buildings designed with fewer and thinner “shear walls” -internal concrete bracing that resists shaking– in order to fit more spots in underground parking garages and create more interior space. Many new high-rises in Vancouver and across North America are built to similar standards. A University of British Columbia Earthquake Lab study found buildings made with six-inch concrete support walls aren’t as resistant to earthquakes as previously believed, despite being fully compliant with building codes.
And how well have those codes been respected? The Lower Mainland’s construction boom has brought with it all kinds of shady dealings, from dirty money to shadow flipping, all in the service of a quick buck. What would prevent an unscrupulous developer -a few of those about- from cashing in by cutting corners? Defraying costs to future generations is the scourge of our times.
Furthermore, the effects of an earthquake will not be evenly distributed. “Seismic microzonation” means that some geographic pockets can be up to five times more prone to shaking, liquefaction and damage. Consider all those towers built on loose Richmond silt, or False Creek infill, exactly the kind topography that experienced the most damage in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.
Assuming that codes are robust enough and structures are built on solid ground, there are sill issues. No building is earthquake proof, only earthquake resistant –structures are designed to hold together long enough for you to GET OUT.
Unfortunately, if you do manage to escape your luxury 25th floor Coal Harbour condominium (at least no one else will be there to plug up the stairwells) you’ll have to contend with falling glass.
(How much falling glass is uncertain. If I understand correctly, Japanese towers include thin wire mesh embedded in glass panels to limit shattering, while local codes have no such requirement. For what it’s worth, it’s often been said that in the event of a major earthquake downtown Vancouver will be buried in glass.)
Of course, other structures will be affected, too. Skytrain lines and overpasses are vulnerable. While most bridges will simply sway off the sudden application of energy, not all are so resistant. The Patullo Bridge in particular does not meet modern seismic standards and most of Metro Vancouver other bridges were constructed before the introduction of modern seismic codes.
While older wood frame buildings are likely to survive even a strong quake, many run the risk of collapsing chimneys or coming off their foundations to which they may be improperly anchored.
Although the City and region have invested in upgrading the resilience of water and other infrastructure, this process is not complete and there is likely to be extensive disruptions in their carrying capacity.
Severed gas lines and associated fires are likely to be widespread.
A strong quake will probably trigger landslides. Assuming our local damns are not damaged, slides could contaminate our local drinking supplies.
And then there are tsunami. It’s widely assumed that as a megathrust earthquake will take place to the west of Vancouver Island, and that that landmass will act as a shield and spare Vancouver the worst of the resulting flooding.
However, anything is possible given the strength and epicenter of a quake.
On March 27th, 1964, the second largest earthquake ever recorded (9.2) struck off the coast of Alaska. The resulting waves funnelled up the 40 km (25 mile) Alberni Canal and a tsunami struck Port Alberni, lifting houses off foundations and upending cars.
Regardless, river channels and low lying areas –Richmond, again- are in a hazard zone.
Collapsed buildings, damaged bridges, debris impeding emergency routes, fires, disrupted water supplies, landslides, and coastal flooding are all bad enough, but the worst may come after the shaking has ceased. A 2014 Auditor General’s report states that Emergency Management BC inadequately prepared to manage the consequences of a major earthquake.
Nor are the rest of us, I’ll wager. Just ask family, or a friend, or neighbour if they have an earthquake kit.
Picture Window, Emily Neufeld
“Our homes are the repositories of our memories. As our homes are renovated and changed over time, our memories of them are also overwritten. When a home is demolished, those repositories of lived experiences are destroyed. We may have memories in the form of photographs of the space, maybe a home video, but the physical materials imbued with histories of deep, personal, human interactions disappear. When a physical vessel for memories is demolished, it weakens the memory itself – so how well do our memories survive as we are continuously displaced, and our homes are eventually dismantled?
“In Picture Window the artist’s hand is the hand of a labourer. The geometric pattern painted throughout this image is a found pattern from the home’s kitchen, where the stripe was painted on a cinderblock wall. It has been carefully carried throughout the home, touching every room, before going out the bedroom window. This line is transformed into a representation of the gaze of someone living in this house. It is positioned at head height and folloss a line of view through the home, pausing where a piece of art once hung, then continuing out the window.
“At the same time, it is the line of gaze from outside the home into a bedroom. From embodiment to inhabiting, the life of a home is both an extension of the body and a microcosm of society at large. Who lived here in the past? What was their life like? Who will get to live here in the future, in the new home constructed on this site? Who designed and built these homes? Who cleaned and maintained them? What is lost with the demolition of the old home? What is gained by the building of the new home? Who suffers from rising costs and who gains?”
“Most disasters are characteristic rather than accidental features of the places and societies where they occur.”
Mike Davis’ Ecology of Fear opens with an impressive inventory of diabolical Los Angeles disasters. Earthquakes, of course, but also tornadoes, floods, drought, fires –both chaparral and urban- mountain lion attacks, killer bees, plague squirrels, “chupacabra,” and –ultimately- real estate speculation.
Davis also considers the fictional destruction of Los Angeles’ in print and film. Sifting 20th century popular culture from the loathsome The Turner Diaries to the ridiculous Independence Day, Davis dutifully tracks the fictional destructive frequency of nuclear attacks, earthquakes, invading hordes, cults, riots, genocide, killer fog, homicidal Bermuda grass and much, much more.
What’s characteristic of Los Angeles disasters?
“The destruction of London –the metropolis most persecuted in fiction between 1885 and 1940- was imagined as a horrifying spectacle, equivalent to the death of Western civilization itself. The obliteration of Los Angeles, by contrast, is often depicted as, or at least secretly experienced as, a victory for civilization.”
In fiction at least, it’s less City of Angels than Gomorrah-on-the-San Andreas. Los Angles gets what it deserves, and no one sheds a tear.
Being both a fringe outpost of the British Empire and a jet-aged suburb cum colony of the Hollywood dream machine, what disasters are characteristic of Vancouver?
Is there a literally or figuratively terminal aspect of the Terminal City? Do fictional representations of Vancouver’s destruction even exist? If there are, what do these say about us?
I searched, and found -too much and too little.
What follows is not a complete inventory of local disasters but -taking my cue from Davis- a consideration of the types of disasters that have struck the Lower Mainland in fact and fiction. The real version occupies this post and the next. A third post will present Vancouver’s imagined destruction.
All large cities are vulnerable to a wide range of hazards both natural and manufactured. But which reflect our local geography and history? Which ones are more likely to occur here? I sought the official view.
While the City notes a number of hazards that could befall Vancouver, it doesn’t distinguish between the potential severity of a tsunami versus a pandemic; so, not very useful.
Curiously, Metro Vancouver does not have a hazard inventory for the Greater Vancouver Regional District –at least not one that I could find. However, it did produce Hazard, Risk and Vulnerability Analysis – Electoral Area A, covering the large swath of unincorporated land from Howe Sound east to Pitt Lake, the university Endowment Lands, UBC, and Barnston Island. To this foundation I add the filtered results of several other municipalities’ assessments. The results are consistently high-risk ratings for the following:
The history and likelihood of each of these will be considered in turn, ordered roughly and subjectively from least destructive (to date, and in terms of structural damage, loss of life and injuries) to most potentially disastrous . While tsunamis are inherently connected to earthquakes, they are considered separately.
A major popular and marketed characteristic of Vancouver is the proximity of nature or wildland interface. (Note: “wildland” is a more exact term than “nature,” as it includes bog and woodland, the second growth forest of the north shore, as well as the few and remaining pockets of relatively untouched wilderness.) Sailing, skiing, hiking, biking etc etc are just a few minutes away and watch out! BEAR IN AREA!
And fire. Wildland interfaces are prone to fires.
Burns Bog is one of North America’s largest peat bogs. Access is restricted primarily due to fire risk. Peat bog fires can sink metres under the dry peat, spread out and burn out of sight, even in damp conditions. These underground fires can smoulder right through the winter months.
While Burns Bog is some 5,000 years old, its readily available fire history is remarkably recent. There were fires in 1977, 1990 (twice), 1994, 1996, 2005, 2007, and 2016.
Smoke and ash covered the city of Vancouver in the 1996 fire. Debris reached as far as Nanaimo in the 2005 fire, and firebreaks, dikes, a fleet of water bombers, and eight days were needed to control the blaze.
The 2016 fire was relatively small, but required 80 firefighters, helicopters and water bombers to control.
British Columbia’s wildfires are usually limited to rural areas; however, a July 2015 wildfire crossed into the metropolitan region, and ash was reported falling on buildings and cars, from Horseshoe Bay to Vancouver.
As climate change yields rising temperatures and more frequent drought conditions, and our cordon verte is pushed back and thinned-out by ongoing residential and commercial development -a sort of zoning-induced flora alopecia- peat and wild wildfires will likely occur with greater frequency and intensity. How long before a major bog fire forces us to stay indoors? When will we see the North Shore mountains burning?
Catastrophic structural fire is tightly woven into Vancouver’s DNA, dramatically punctuating the historical record.
On June 13th, 1886, just two months after the city’s incorporation, a brush fire set by CPR employees to clear land for property development to the west of the main settlement was fanned by a strong wind and quickly grew of out of control. Dozens were killed and only a handful of buildings survived.
(If it’s not obvious enough, take note: the eagerness to increase land supply was fueled by a strong wind from the west.)
At 10,500 seats, the Denman Arena, was the second largest auditorium in North America, after Madison Square Gardens –a significant feat for a community of 100,000. Constructed in 1911, the Arena hosted curling, boxing, wrestling, lacrosse, soldiers assembling for deployment in the First World War, political rallies by the likes of William Lyon Mackenzie King and the CCF, auto shows, musical performances, and hockey -both women and men’s leagues. In 1915 the Stanley Cup was paraded under the Arena’s rafters by the victorious Vancouver Millionaires. According to hockey historian Craig Bowlsby, “It was a magnet for entertainment. It was probably the most important cultural center in the city …. It was used for everything.” On August 19th, 1936, fire of mysterious origins destroyed the arena, seven adjacent industrial buildings, two homes and fifty-eight small boats, and claimed two lives.
On July 27, 1938, at 1:45 PM, fire broke out at the north end of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Pier D, at the foot of Granville Street. In 40 minutes the entire dock was burning. Vancouver Sun: “Flying cinders, bits of blazing debris and ashes were carried on the east wind to Stanley Park and most sections of the West End.”
“Buildings a block away were kept drenched as the intense heat melted roofing material. Railway ties 50 yards from the blazing pier caught fire.”
There were seven injuries.
Source: BC History
Vancouver’s first five-alarm fire, and the largest in the history of the Vancouver Fire Department, took place on June 3rd, 1960, at the BC Forest Products Mill, near Oak and West 6th Avenue. Three hundred and fifty firefighters battled an inferno fueled by 60 kilometre an hour winds. Ten firefighters and three civilians were sent to hospital. Four city blocks were destroyed.
Source: BC History
On Wednesday, March 4th, 2015, at Port Metro Vancouver’s Centerm terminal, a shipping container containing trichloroisocyanuric acid caught fire and burned for more than 24 hours, generating a chlorine-scented white shroud over the east side of the city.
According to the Vancouver Sun, “Police ordered people to leave or stay indoors in a partial evacuation zone that stretched west from Nanaimo to Main streets and south to Hastings Street, and advised anyone north of First Avenue to close their windows.”
As then City Manager Penny Ballem noted, “It was the closest we have come to a major evacuation across our city in many, many years.”
Thousands of containers of hazardous substances pass through the port every year.
While there are many incidents of arson in Vancouver, it’s impossible to say whether these are statistically unusual, as statistics do not appear to be available.
Structural Failures & Accidents
Aside from fire, major structural failures and accidents –to date- have been relatively rare.
On March 6, 1945, the S.S. Greenhill Park, a freighter carrying barrels of alcohol, lumber and 85 tonnes of sodium chlorate, was docked at the CPR’s pier near the present-day Waterfront Station. A fire -apparently resulting from the illicit siphoning of the alcohol- produced three explosions, shattering windows throughout the downtown core. Eight longshoremen were killed and 19 others were injured.
On June 17, 1958, during the construction of what was then known as the Second Narrows Bridge, the structure collapsed, killing 18 men. A scuba diver was also killed in the effort to recover the bodies. The failure was attributed to an error on the part of a junior engineer that underestimated the weight-bearing capacity of a temporary arm supporting the fifth span of the bridge. The engineer was among those killed.
The bridge was renamed the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing in 1994 to recognize those killed during the June 1958 incident, as well as four others that lost their lives during the construction process.
On April 23, 1988 at the grand opening of a new Save-On-Foods store at the Station Square complex in Burnaby, a 6,400 square foot portion of the roof –which also served as a parking lot- collapsed, sending the parking deck and 20 automobiles crashing into the produce section below. While there were no fatalities, 21 people were treated in hospital. For some time afterward Save-On was popularly known as “Cave-On-Foods.”
In the early morning of April 8, 2015, 2,700 litres of Bunker C fuel oil spilled from the MV Marathassa into English Bay.
A review of the found that the response was delayed for nearly two hours “due to miscommunication, technology woes and confusion over roles and responsibilities between the Canadian Coast Guard and its partners.”
The fuel oil fouled beaches from Stanley Park to West Vancouver, with some reaching New Brighton Park near the Iron Workers Memorial Bridge.
According to the Stanley Park Ecological Society, the intertidal zone surrounding the park supports a food web of bacteria, protozoa, plankton, sponges, worms, seaweeds (including kelp forests), crustaceans, mollusks, fish, river otters, blue herons, eagles, and a wide variety of shore birds and sea ducks. Very heavy oils like Bunker C can persist in the environment for months or even years. In the short term these oils smother marine organisms. In the long-term may cause tumours and chronic health problems in some organisms.
Despite an independent review’s 25 recommendations to improve the response to such spills, concerns remain that there are serious gaps in preparedness.
At the same time, the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan (Trans Mountain) Pipeline would triple the amount of oil transported through Burrard Inlet from the Westbridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby. This oil is currently comprised of conventional crude and diluted oil sands bitumen.
The “English Bay Oil Spill Debrief and Tanker Scenario Planning Workshop,” considers the impact of a 16,000 m3 diluted bitumen spill at First Narrows. While this volume is almost 6,000 times the Marathassa spill, it represents only one-third the carrying capacity of an oil tanker. Such a spill would create a vapour cloud or plume that could pose significant risk to the health and safety of first responders and the public. Consider the 2010 Kalamazoo River, Michigan, diluted bitumen oil spill of 4,200 m3, which resulted in approximately 150 hospital visits for neurological, cardiovascular, dermal, ocular, renal, and respiratory problems.
In order to better help you imagine such a disaster, here are two scenarios prepared by Genwest Systems for the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby and the Tsleil-Waututh:
Of course spills of these magnitudes would generate a significant negative impact to the shoreline habitat and wildlife, as well as the overall ecological health of the area.
“Every once in a while … a Pacific Northwest storm is seeded by a tropical storm from across the Pacific, grows off the California or Oregon Coast, and makes landfall on the North American West Coast. Such was the case in October 1962 when the remnants of Typhoon Freda went extratropical and delivered a knockout blow from northern California to southwestern British Columbia. Canadians refer to the storm as Typhoon Freda, after its previous tropical incarnation. For those in Oregon and Washington, it is the Columbus Day Storm, as it struck on that US holiday, or the Big Blow.”
Freda is the benchmark storm against which all other are measured. The typhoon blew through Vancouver at 90 km per hour, with gusts of up to 145 km per hour. Across the region trees “’snapped like twigs” and “fell like matchsticks.” Stanley Park lost 3,000 trees, including 500-year-old-cedars -20 percent of its old growth. In the city, shattered glass was the primary hazard, produced by flying debris or the wind itself. Freda killed seven people, caused 640 million (current) dollars in damage, and left residents from Vancouver to Hope without power.
On December 14th and 15th, 2006, a windstorm -unnamed here but known as the Hanukkah Eve Wind Storm in Washington State- hit Vancouver with winds reaching 120 km per hour. In Stanley Park 41 hectares -10,000 trees- were flattened, particularly near Prospect Point. The seawall suffered significant damage and was closed.
With gusts up to 90 km/hour, the windstorm of August 29, 2015 was less powerful than its 2006 incarnation but produced considerably more damage. After an exceptionally dry summer that yielded a Level 4 drought rating (the highest category) across the south coast and Vancouver Island, tree route systems were severely weakened and toppling was much more prevalent than would have been the case with normal precipitation. According to BC Hydro, the storm was “the single largest outage event” in the utility’s history, and left 710,000 households -half of its customers- without power.
A study considering the vulnerability of the power grid to windstorms notes a potential for widespread grid damage for wind speeds approaching the 1962 windstorm.
Landslides, Rockslides & Hydrogeomorphic Events
“A great diversity of landslide types occur in the Vancouver region in response to high relief, steep slopes, heavy rainfall, seismicity, and a variety of landslide-prone materials. Rockfalls and small rock avalanches (less than a million cubic metres) are a significant hazard to land use development but their biggest impact has been on the transportation network and the Fraser River fishery. The deposits of larger rock avalanches (greater than a million cubic metres) are common throughout the region and have occurred along major transportation routes in the Fraser Valley and the Squamish-Pemberton corridor in the last 10,000 years …. Channelized debris flows within steep mountain watersheds triggered by heavy rains occur throughout the region …. The expansion of development in the Vancouver region is increasing the vulnerability of communities, transportation routes, the resource base to landslides.”
“Landslides in the Vancouver-Fraser Valley-Whistler region,” S.G. Evans and K.W. Savigny
Of all the potential disasters that can strike locally, landslides and their kin are the most pervasive and specifically reflect our local topography, geology, climate and building activity.
Three distinct physical events occur during a landslide: the initial slope failure, the subsequent transport of materials, and their final deposition. This activity is usually caused by one or some of the following: undercutting of a slope by water causing erosion (eg. heavy rains), human activity too close to the slope, shocks or vibrations caused by mining, construction or nature, and/or the loading of additional weight on to the upper portion of a slope.
“Landslide Risk Management: Partial Risk Analysis for known Landslide Hazard Areas” was a public presentation by BGC Engineering Inc. for the City of North Vancouver identifies seven creeks on the North Shore rated “very high” for landslide risk. On average one landslide occurs every year, usually between November and February. Past consequences have included injuries, fatalities, damage to property and infrastructure, and environmental impacts.
A particular weak spot is the Berkley-Riverside Escarpment, where at least six extremely rapid landslides have been triggered by heavy rainfall since 1972. The most recent slide, in January 2005, swept two houses down an embankment and resulted in one serious injury and one fatality. The house at 2175 Berkley Avenue was assessed as being at low risk of major instability.
In November of 2006 heavy rainfall caused landslides into the Capilano and Seymour water reservoirs, affecting a million people in Greater Vancouver. The resulting boil water advisory –which lasted 12 days- forced supermarkets and restaurants to stop selling produce, coffee shops to close, and fistfights over depleted supplies of bottled water.
On December 7, 2014, a large rockslide in the Seymour Canyon dumped 50,000 cubic meters of rock into Seymour River, at a rapid known as Mosh Pit. The boulder debris dammed the river and formed a lake.
Distinct from land and rock slides are hydrogeomorphic events, where mountain streams flowing down steep hillsides suffer surging flows of water, either clear (clear water floods), heavily charged with debris (debris floods), carrying large amounts of organic debris (debris torrents), or very fine materials (mudflows).
In the fall of 1921, and following days of very heavy rain, a substantial lake had formed behind a damn of logs and rocks above Britannia Beach. On the evening of October 28, the barrier gave way, unleashing a wall of water, logs and stone, killing 37 people and destroying half of the town’s homes.
When next you drive the Sea-to-Sky Highway, take note of the channelized debris flow mitigative structures -the concrete channels framing mountain streams. The 26 stream basins on this route produced more than 14 landslides in the 25 years up to 1984. Between 1981 and 1984 there were five events that resulted in 12 deaths, and the destruction or damage of nine bridges and six houses.
The speed at which these events occur means that they often go visually unrecorded. The details regarding the following are sparse, but it does capture a coastal BC debris slide for a hypothetically fair comparison:
Residential construction on steep slopes continues unabated on the North Shore, from Lions Bay to West Vancouver to Anmore.
The Fraser River is the local focus for clear water floods. The most significant Fraser River flood on record occurred in May, 1894, when rapid snowmelt caused a significant rise in river levels and flooding from Harrison to Richmond. The 1948 flood was much less dramatic, but due to population growth and development caused the evacuation of 16,000 people, and 2,000 homes damaged or destroyed.
The Fraser Basin currently maintains 600 km of dikes, 400 floodboxes and 100 pump stations to protect communities and infrastructure from flooding; however, land use planning is critical to reducing risks, and there is much pressure for continued development in floodplain areas.
It is estimated that a reoccurrence of the 1894 flood could cause “approximately $1 billion in economic damages to City Chilliwack and several billion in economic damages to the City of Richmond.”
Continues in Apocalyptic Glimpses: The Big One & More