NZ quake reminder of B.C.'s emergency preparedness needs 

Arts Whistler director experiences devastation on visit to New Zealand's capital

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MAUREEN DOUGLAS - QUAKE CREW Workers in Wellington, N.Z., survey the damage after a 7.5-magnitude earthquake on Nov. 13 .
  • PHOTO by maureen douglas
  • QUAKE CREW Workers in Wellington, N.Z., survey the damage after a 7.5-magnitude earthquake on Nov. 13 .

On Sunday, Nov. 13, Arts Whistler director Maureen Douglas and her partner landed in New Zealand to take in some of the sights of the country's constitutional and cultural capital, Wellington.

Just hours later, they were awoken in their hotel room by the tremors of a 7.5-magnitude earthquake that has devastated the Pacific island nation.

"Once we tuned into what was going on, we quickly jumped out of bed, and everything in the room started to shake — including us," said Douglas when reached by phone on Tuesday morning local time.

In town to deliver a talk on engagement in the public sector, Douglas and partner Cindy Filipenko's trip was interrupted by the violent quake that has decimated infrastructure across the country and left at least two people dead. While Douglas and her fellow hotel guests, located kilometres away from the quake's southern epicentre, were safe in the aftermath, their hotel experience relatively minor damage, leaving an elevator destroyed and hotel rooms covered in broken glass.

"We were grabbing stuff and there was glass everywhere," Douglas said. "They have little kitchenettes in these rooms, so plates and glasses, the microwaves were all coming off the counters."

A hotspot for seismic activity, New Zealand is only four years removed from one of the most deadly natural disasters in the nation's history, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake near Christchurch that killed 185 people.

Douglas said it was apparent just how well equipped the country is to deal with major disasters based on staff's response at her hotel.

"These guys live with (earthquakes) all the time, and the staff was so unbelievable; so calm, so cool, like it was a fire drill," she noted. When Douglas returned to her 17th-floor suite following the late-night quake, she found a hotel employee on his hands and knees cleaning up glass. Turns out it was the Rydges Wellington hotel's executive chef.

"It didn't matter what his role was in a time of crisis. He's cleaning rooms, and he made us feel very secure," Douglas added. "I can't say enough about the people here in this hotel."

Unfortunately the people of New Zealand are not out of the woods quite yet. The country has been rocked by dozens of afterschocks in the days following the quake that have triggered a series of tsunamis — seismologists recorded three aftershocks in the time it took to interview Douglas.

All of it had Douglas thinking about emergency preparedness in this part of the world.

"I don't think we are as prepared as we should be. I don't think people want to hear that education; it's a scary thing to think about," she said. "But at the same time, I think if there were better information about how (emergency response) systems would kick in, that would really help."

Officials have warned of the potential for a full rupture of the 1,045-kilometre-long offshore fault running from Northern California to British Columbia within our lifetimes. In the worst-case scenario, B.C. officials in a 2015 report said roughly 10,000 people in the Lower Mainland could die if a shallow earthquake were to strike directly beneath the city of Vancouver.

"This is what you might expect for a region with a population that we have here," Carlos Ventura, director of the earthquake engineering research facility at the University of B.C., told CBC at the time. "So the numbers are not unrealistic. They are scary numbers, but it's good to know what could happen if we don't take steps to protect ourselves and minimize the potential damage from an earthquake."

Here in Whistler, the resort is considered at high-risk from earthquake damage, although the wood-frame and reinforced concrete buildings that make up the majority of the community's development footprint are considered "reasonably stable" in a quake, according to the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW).

"Although (in) a rare occurrence, if a large earthquake were to occur, vulnerable infrastructure and populations would be greatly impacted, and aid from the neighbouring communities would be limited or non-existent as they would be dealing with their own earthquake damage," said the municipality's earthquake preparedness webpage.

Last month 10 Sea to Sky organizations participated in the Great B.C. Shakeout, a cross-jurisdictional evacuation exercise that included more than 75 emergency personnel from the RMOW, the District of Squamish, the Squamish Nation and the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District.

The exercise also involved about 600 residents from Squamish's Brackendale neighbourhood and the Cheakamus Reserve, and assisted in the test of a new community-wide emergency alert system, Squamish Alert and Squamish Nation Alert, which coordinates emergency processes across multiple agencies, sending texts and voice alerts to residents who sign up.

-With files from Lynn Mitges

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