Michael Watkins is a bit troubled that many parents aren’t all shook up about the seismic dangers facing kids in public schools.
As contact person for Families for School Seismic Safety, Watkins can predict the times when he’ll receive inquiries. One is at the beginning of the school year, when parents new to the education system realize they might be sending their children to buildings that are vulnerable to earthquakes.
The other time is when major tremors occur. So in the hours following the 7.7-magnitude earthquake off Haida Gwaii on October 27, emails started trickling into the group’s inbox.
“It’s always been obvious that Vancouver and the whole coastline lie alongside a major fault,” Watkins told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “And it’s been known for a long time that the entire area is susceptible to what could be a significant earthquake.”
When the B.C. Liberal government rolled out its seismic-mitigation program in 2005, it identified 747 public schools that needed upgrades in the next 15 years, at a cost of $1.5 billion.
According to the B.C. Ministry of Education, 121 seismic projects had been completed as of August 2012. Construction work is happening at 14 schools, including Sir James Douglas Elementary School in Vancouver, which Watkins’s two sons used to attend. Eight more projects are proceeding to construction, and 26 others are in the planning stages.
Watkins’s boys are now in grades 8 and 10 at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School, which is designated a high-risk facility.
“The message we want people to walk away with is, use this as a reminder and get involved and write to your school board and write to your MLA,” Watkins said about the Haida Gwaii quake. “And demand that action be taken at a faster pace than we have [seen].” At the rate at which seismic upgrading is being done, school retrofits may not be completed by 2020, he said. “We’re simply not doing enough.”
According to the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Natural Gas, offshore B.C. is the most active earthquake zone in the country, with four tectonic plates interacting off the West Coast.
SFU earth-sciences professor John Clague told the Straight by phone that there is a “25-percent chance over the next 30 years” that a major quake will hit the Lower Mainland.
Another expert, Peter Byrne, explained that this shaker may be a local one induced by a movement of the North American Plate. Although potentially destructive, this is different from the often-talked-about “big one”, says Byrne, a former UBC engineering professor (now active emeritus).
Byrne told the Straight in a phone interview that such bigger quakes result when one tectonic plate slips under another, a phenomenon called subduction. These huge quakes occur once every 400 to 500 years. Byrne added that it may happen on the west side of Vancouver Island, in which case it would likely pose little danger to the Lower Mainland.
In May of this year, the Ministry of Education announced the results of a reassessment of the seismic safety of 500 schools. According to the ministry, the review identified 152 high-risk schools; of these, 14 were tagged as high priority for funding. The remaining 138 schools will have to wait.
Robin Austin, who is the NDP MLA for Skeena and the critic for education, explained that new techniques available for assessing and upgrading buildings have changed the priorities in the mitigation program started by the government in 2005. Some schools that were thought to be at risk of crumbling in an earthquake are actually more structurally sound than was thought, so the cost of upgrading them is less.
“I think that is a reasonable thing to do, given the level of risk and the resources that are available to do this,” Austin told the Straight by phone.
Last month, the Vancouver school board approved a five-year capital plan for 68 projects involving seismic repairs, construction of new and replacement schools, improvement of building envelopes, and mechanical upgrades. But the plan needs $851 million in provincial funding that has not yet been approved.
Earthquake preparedness is a top concern for the Vancouver school district, according to Collette O’Reilly, district manager for health, safety, and employee support. “We focus on if there’s a large earthquake that causes damage and we have injuries and we need to respond,” O’Reilly told the Straight by phone.
According to information provided by the district, Vancouver’s School Emergency Response Team program, introduced in 2009, has trained four staff members in each elementary school and eight in every secondary school in basic search-and-rescue techniques and emergency first aid. Equipment and supplies like food and water have been stockpiled in container vans placed on school grounds.