BUCHOLTZ: More prepared than ever for The Big One

A giant earthquake drill last Wednesday got me thinking about how emergency preparedness has changed — hopefully, for the better.

The drill on Jan. 26 was timed to coincide with an earthquake 311 years ago, estimated at magnitude 9.0. Organizers from the provincial Emergency Management Office were hoping for 450,000 participants — many of them in schools. A similar drill was set to take place in Oregon, as well.

Learning how to prepare for an earthquake is a good thing, particularly in places like B.C.’s Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, where it is a matter of when the “big one” hits, not if.

Lower Mainland residents had a small taste of an earthquake in February 2001, when a shaker centred near Olympia, Washington was widely felt here. There was minimal damage in the Lower Mainland, but some parts of the Seattle area suffered significant damage.

However, the largest natural disaster experienced in this area in the past 50 years was not an earthquake, but a hurricane. Hurricane Frieda (sometimes spelled Freda, and known south of the border as the Columbus Day Storm) hit this area with a ferocity on Oct. 12, 1962, and the widespread damage it caused was in many ways similar to that of an earthquake.

Many roads were blocked because of downed trees, and windows were broken. Crews scrambled for days to clear roads, and restore power and phone service.

There was some property damage, although it was much worse south of the border, where the storm hit with even more ferocity. Some places in Oregon reported sustained wind speeds of 130 miles per hours (209 km/h). At the Vancouver Airport, the highest recorded wind speed was 78 miles per hour (125 km/h).

In those days, there was little in the way of a formal emergency preparedness system in place. Emergencies were dealt with, as they came along, by fire and police departments. An organization known as civil defence, made up mostly of volunteers, did provide some help in the Frieda aftermath, but it was mainly set up to deal with the threat of nuclear warfare.

Something I was unaware of until recently, is that CKNW was the only radio station north of the California-Oregon border that managed to remain on the air.

It did so because engineer Jack Gordon had prepared an emergency broadcast backup kit, that allowed it to keep broadcasting as long as it had access to a telephone line. Of necessity, it became the “go to” place for information and co-ordination.

We have frequently been told that, in emergencies, we should monitor radio and TV stations for up-to-date and accurate information. What would have happened in 1962 if Gordon hadn’t thought ahead about the possibility of his station being knocked off the air?

Emergency preparedness has come a long way since that time. New buildings and infrastructure are built and designed with earthquakes in mind. Every city has an emergency preparedness co-ordinator. There are frequent exercises to test systems that have been set up.

There are plans for emergency communication to let people know what to do. And yet, almost every residence and business is more dependent on computers than ever.

What will happen if there is a widespread power outage and a disabling of wireless transmitters?

Would there be enough means to communicate? While people are cautioned to have an emergency supply of food, water and other supplies for 72 hours in their homes, would that be enough to tide them over until major repairs were made?

As the experience in 1962 shows, dealing with an emergency is a necessity every now and then.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of the Langley Times.