Les Leyne: Preparing for the Big One never ends

Les Leyne mugshot genericIf there were a catastrophic earthquake this week, is B.C. prepared for it?

The question was put point-blank to the director of Emergency Management B.C. on Wednesday during a committee meeting, and the answer was: “No, we are not.”

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And with full candour, Pat Quealey’s more extensive reply was that B.C. will never be fully prepared. The catastrophic damage from an off-the-charts quake would overwhelm any jurisdiction that sustains it. That premise is proven every time one strikes.

The concept of preparing for the Big One is a never-ending road, and you never get to the destination where readiness can be declared.

Quealey, who has been on the job as an assistant deputy minister for four months, told MLAs that preparing for catastrophe is ongoing. “There will never be that end state of preparedness where I will be able to answer your questions and say: ‘Yes, we are.’ ”

The idea is to continue planning and modelling for resiliency, so that when a portion of the province is overwhelmed by catastrophe, the systems can be adaptive and bounce back.

“Next year, I will not categorically tell you that we are prepared, but I will say that we will be better prepared than we are today,” said Quealey.

His appearance stemmed from the auditor general’s report on earthquake readiness last March that condemned the state of preparation.

A similar audit 17 years earlier produced dozens of recommendations, but not much came of any of them. Despite reassuring news releases over the years, the audit found B.C. is not ready for a big quake and its lack of preparedness has not been publicly disclosed. Emergency Management B.C. has so many other responsibilities that it runs earthquake readiness “off the side of the desk,” with a $6-million budget that has remained unchanged for several years.

What they are supposed to be planning for is the kind of earthquake that flattens buildings, alters river courses and topography and results in high numbers of casualties and evacuees. Responsibility for dealing with the aftermath response follows a hierarchy.

If individuals are overwhelmed, local governments are expected to respond. If they are overwhelmed, the province is legislated to act, and if the province needs help, it asks the federal government or other jurisdictions for aid.

But the audit found B.C.’s preparation for the role it legally has to play is inadequate. The analyses of risk and hazard are out of date. The plans don’t detail everything that has to happen. There’s little integration of planning, and the training exercises and public education programs are inadequate.

Most of the deficiencies were noted by EMBC itself, after a 7.7 earthquake off Haida Gwaii in October 2012.

Wednesday’s session was the first chance for Opposition MLAs to go over the report in detail, and the budgeting caught some attention.

NDP MLA David Eby said government priorities can be ranked by the money allocated. By that measure, B.C. spent twice as much on the Bollywood awards show and $14 million on advertising the jobs plan. He noted the $6 million for earthquake readiness is the same amount as a different agenda item that occupied the committee earlier — the legal bills, covered by taxpayers, of the two corrupt aides who pleaded guilty in the B.C. Rail case.

Quealey came armed with a strategic plan to show MLAs. It was completed in the months following release of the audit findings. It’s been posted on the EMBC website and preparation for a catastrophic seismic event is listed as a priority. (There are actually 57 specific relevant potential hazards in B.C.)

Just So You Know: The audit compared preparedness with Washington, Oregon and California and came to an interesting conclusion — they spend much more money there, but don’t believe they are prepared, either.

Direct comparisons are different because the structure of governments are different. But all the U.S. agencies that have roles are well-funded, yet they recently self-assessed themselves as not being prepared.

When it comes to preparing readiness, the audit official said: “What B.C. should be doing is meeting its own expectations.”

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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