Insurance study warns we are unprepared for carnage of next big earthquake

Canada is unprepared for a major earthquake — likely to hit B.C. in the next 50 years — which would cause tens of billions of dollars in damage and have a crippling domino effect on the economy, says a new study released today.

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake in B.C. would cause almost $74.7 billion in damage — $62 billion in property damage and $12.7 billion in indirect economic impact, according to the study released by AIR Worldwide, a catastrophe modelling firm.

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Only $20.4 billion of those losses are insured.

The authors of the report said the findings should be a wakeup call to governments, insurance providers and disaster preparedness experts for a national strategy on how to handle a major earthquake.

The study, commissioned by the Insurance Bureau of Canada, laid out two scenarios of earthquakes in B.C. and the Ontario/Quebec region to analyze the insurance and economic costs.

Southwestern B.C. — including heavily populated Greater Victoria and Metro Vancouver — falls into a high-risk area, with a 30 per cent chance that a significant earthquake will strike in the next 50 years, according to studies by the Geological Survey of Canada and National Resources Canada.

B.C.’s Cascadia subduction zone, located just off the regional coastline, produced a mega-quake in 1700 and seismic experts say it’s just a matter of time before the next Big One.

In the first scenario, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hits 75 kilometres off the west coast of Vancouver Island, triggering a tsunami, landslides and fires. The shaking is powerful enough to be felt across B.C. and Washington state.

The southwest area of Vancouver Island would see the most damage. Poorly built structures and historic heritage buildings in downtown Victoria and Duncan would crumble. Victoria would be ravaged by fires and homes in Esquimalt, Gordon Head and Cordova Bay would be destroyed due to the tsunami or landslides.

Sea ports in Victoria, Port Alberni and Nanaimo would be incapacitated for months.

The report did not speculate on a death toll but a report earlier this year by the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission warned more than 10,000 people across North America could die should a major earthquake and tsunami hit the continent's Pacific northwest.

Previous studies have shown the 113-year-old legislature building has a high risk of collapse during even a moderate earthquake. The building needs more than $250 million in seismic repairs but the province has said it is focusing on getting all of B.C.’s schools seismically upgraded. That project which is underway.

Metro Vancouver would also see damage, although not as significant, with moderate damage to low- and mid-rise condominiums in Vancouver, commercial buildings in New Westminster, Surrey and Delta. Significant damage would be expected to homes and commercial buildings in west Richmond and Gilmore and Paramount due to the tsunami waves. Road access to the Vancouver International Airport would be cut off for the first few critical days after the earthquake because of damage to bridges leading to it.

According to the study, there have been at least 24 significant earthquakes in the past three centuries that were widely felt in Canada. They’ve been concentrated in two regions: off the west coast of B.C. and in southern Quebec and southeastern Ontario, two seismic zones that affect 40 per cent of the population.

It’s been more than two decades since there was a comprehensive study of the economic impact of an earthquake in Canada, the authors said, and much has changed since then, including urban development, population growth and advances in earthquake research and building codes.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada claims this is the most comprehensive and all-inclusive of its kind in Canada.

The report says the devastating earthquakes that struck Japan, Chile, New Zealand and Turkey in the past three years “have highlighted the issue of insurance industry preparedness for such catastrophic events.”

A 7.7 earthquake shook Haida Gwaii in October 2012, the strongest recorded in Canada since an 8.1 earthquake rocked the same area in 1949. No damage was reported.

kderosa@timescolonist

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