Reducing the Risk of Earthquake Damages

Mar 15, 2011

Some day a large earthquake will strike Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa or another large urban centre in Canada. Such an event has the potential to cause loss of life, property damage and economic disruption unprecedented for Canada. The tragic and contrasting experiences last year in Haiti and Chile show that appropriate investments in preparedness and resilience can help prevent future earthquakes from becoming disasters.

The following text will identify seven lessons, and in doing so, examines the country’s state of preparedness and resilience to extreme earthquake events. There are many areas of strength in Canada’s preparedness and resilience, yet there are also several areas where improvement is needed. Of particular concern is the vulnerability of public infrastructure, the preparedness of the federal government, and the need to retrofit older homes and buildings.

In addition, there is scope to improve the dialogue between public officials, business leaders, the research community, and the general public. It is important also, to highlight the important role that insurance can play to support the recovery following an earthquake and the essential contribution of research to provide a science-based foundation for action.

The intent of this article is to foster increased awareness about the potential impact of a major earthquake in Canada, and promote opportunities to prevent or mitigate the risk of loss. Such a dialogue is necessary to seek actions that will strengthen the willingness to invest further in resilient buildings, infrastructure and preparedness. The best time to act is now, before a large earthquake strikes.

The earthquakes in Chile and Haiti
A magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck Chile on February 27, 2010. This was the fifth strongest earthquake ever recorded. The energy released was 500 times greater than the Haiti earthquake. More than 12.5 million people experienced severe or violent shaking, or were affected by the resulting tsunami. The Chilean government has identified 432 people that were killed by the earthquake and continues to investigate 98 other deaths where the earthquake appears to have been the cause. The subsequent tsunami was responsible for 124 of the total deaths. Direct economic damage could reach US$30 billion, or 18% of Chile’s annual production. The adverse impact on Chile of this large earthquake was significantly reduced because of the investment in preparedness and resilience, and stands in stark contrast to the experience in Haiti.

A magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. The impact was ­catastrophic because of Haiti’s extreme ­vulnerability. An estimated 2.5 million people experienced extreme or violent shaking. Almost 9% of those affected were killed (222,570 people), and half (1.3 million) were forced to live in tents and other temporary shelter. There was US$8 billion in direct ­economic damage – equal to 110% of Haiti’s annual economic production.

Lessons in Resiliency
Important lessons can be learned from the tragic events in Haiti and Chile that can be applied to Canada to help reduce the probability that large earthquakes become catastrophes. Earthquakes can be powerful hazards. Hazards can become disasters if they strike a vulnerable community that is not prepared. Countries exposed to large earthquakes, like Canada, must invest in preparedness and resilience to reduce the risk that earthquakes will cause fatalities, property damage and economic disruption.

There are many lessons for homeowners, businesses and public officials from the tragic earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Seven key lessons are highlighted below.

The first is to understand potential Risks. It is inevitable that a major ­earthquake will strike Canada. A number of communities have a high or moderate risk of experiencing a large earthquake, including Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Victoria and Quebec City. It is essential that individuals, businesses and public officials understand the risks earthquakes pose.

We can help prevent earthquakes from becoming disasters. Three priorities for improving Canada’s resilience to large earthquakes should include retrofitting or replacing vulnerable buildings, taking steps to reduce the threat of uncontrolled fire following an earthquake, and investment to strengthen the seismic resilience of public infrastructure. Sound investment in loss prevention can significantly reduce the need for recovery.

Building codes and retrofits protect lives and property. Most earthquake fatalities and extensive property damage are the result of buildings that collapse. Fortunately, modern building codes and a progressive engineering community have reduced the risk of loss for newer homes and buildings in Canada. However, investment should be made to retrofit or replace older and potentially vulnerable structures, including schools and hospitals.

Public infrastructure is vulnerable to damage. Earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and elsewhere resulted in severe destruction of essential systems, including transportation and water systems. Public infrastructure in Canada appears highly vulnerable following decades of under­­investment, and may be severely challenged by a large earthquake. Even in the absence of such an event, significant investments are required to retrofit these aging systems to a better level of performance.

Effective preparedness will reduce the risk of losses. Local and provincial emergency response systems in Canada have a good record of successfully responding to natural hazards. However, Canada’s system of emergency preparedness has never been tested by an event as large as a major earthquake. Moreover, there are some concerns about the preparedness of the Government of Canada to provide federal services, and support, if requested, the provincial and local response.

Canadians must understand recovery tools like insurance. The best time to plan for recovery from a major earthquake is before the event strikes. Tools like insurance and public relief are essential mechanisms to fund the recovery process. Individuals, businesses, and governments should take the time to understand the specific role that insurance and other tools may play to support recovery following an earthquake.

Science and research pro­vide the foundation for action. Governments must invest in research to enhance their knowledge of the hazard, the potential impacts, and seismic safety. Investment in science and research will provide the knowledge to support effective actions by decision makers and responders.

It is inevitable that a large earthquake will strike at some point in a major urban centre in Canada like Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Victoria or Quebec City. Actions taken to prepare for this peril will reduce fatalities, property damage and economic disruption when the hazard strikes.

It is important to learn from the tragic earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, and to identify actions to enhance seismic safety in Canada. The greatest challenge in advancing public safety is to stimulate action from key stakeholders, including individuals, businesses and governments. Most fatalities in Haiti and many in Chile were in buildings that collapsed. Canada has a reputation for sound construction, but building codes and other standards have not been tested by a major earthquake. Building codes function well as a mechanism to systemically institutionalize emerging knowledge about seismic design and construction. The greatest risk of earthquake fatalities and property damage in Canada appears to be in older buildings that do not include the safety knowledge present in modern structures. This risk can be addressed through seismic retrofits or replacement of older structures. In particular, it is important to address safety in schools, hospitals and other essential buildings.

The disaster in Haiti was made worse by the absence of any preparedness and the resulting chaotic response. Canadian emergency response systems have proven their effectiveness to address small and moderate events, but they have seldom been tested by large-scale disasters. Confidence is high that local response efforts will be appropriate and provincial systems appear to be sound. The greatest uncertainty in emergency response to a large earthquake is the capacity of the federal government to sustain federal services to support the provinces when requested. There is scope for the Government of Canada to improve its preparedness to respond to an emergency.

Recent earthquakes resulted in infrastructure failures that will delay the recovery in Chile by months and in Haiti by years. An important opportunity to take action today to reduce the adverse impact of a major earthquake in Canada would be to repair or replace aging public infrastructure. Transportation and underground systems, like water, may be compromised for months if a large earthquake strikes Vancouver, Montreal or Ottawa. Many of these essential systems are vulnerable due to age and years of deferred maintenance – a weakness that is likely to be fully exposed when a large earthquake strikes – increasing the risk of evacuations, business closures and prolonged economic disruption.

The most important finding for individuals, businesses and public officials in Canada from the tragic earthquakes early last year in Haiti and Chile is that the knowledge exists to help prevent a future earthquake in Canada, even a very large earthquake, from becoming a disaster.
Canadian businesses, homeowners and governments should take action now to invest in seismic safety to strengthen the resilience of their buildings and infrastructure, and improve preparedness.

The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction is a world-class centre of excellence for disaster safety. The Institute is an independent, not-for-profit research centre based in Toronto and London, at the University of Western Ontario, working to turn research into actions that enhance resilience to natural hazards.

This article is excerpted from a larger study entitled ‘Reducing the risk of earthquake damage in Canada: Lesson from Haiti and Chile’, available at
© FrontLine Security 2011