COLUMN: Essential to be prepared
A giant earthquake drill on Wednesday got me thinking about how emergency preparedness has changed – hopefully, for the better.
Wednesday’s drill was timed to coincide with an earthquake 311 years ago, estimated at magnitude 9.0. Organizers from the provincial Emergency Management Office in Surrey were hoping for 450,000 participants.
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 will the “big one” hits, not if.
Lower Mainland residents had a small taste of an earthquake in February, 2001 when a quake that was centred near Olympia, Washington was widely felt here.
However, the largest natural disaster 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 ferocity on Oct. 12, 1962, and the widespread damage it caused was in many ways similar to that of an earthquake.
In Surrey, thousands of trees were downed and there was little or no power for days. Roads were blocked because of downed trees and windows were broken. Crews scrambled for days to get things back to normal.
There was some property damage, although it was much worse south of the border. 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 of mostly volunteers, did provide some help in the Frieda aftermath.
There were no radio or TV stations on the air, except for CKNW. It 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 back-up kit, with a battery-powered tape recorder and other equipment that would allow it to keep broadcasting, as long as it had access to a telephone line. It became the “go to” place for information.
Emergency preparedness has come a long ways 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.
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, being prepared for an emergency is a necessity.