British Columbia

Vancouver earthquake upgrades needed in hospitals, fire halls, schools and condos, says expert

Many Vancouver hospitals, fire stations, schools and apartment blocks have not been upgraded to withstand a big earthquake, says an expert who is urging the city to upgrade a range of public buildings.

'Many hospitals are very in need of a serious retrofit,' says UBC Prof. Carlos Ventura

St. Paul's Hospital in downtown Vancouver is slated to be closed and replaced with a new facility with up-to-date seismic design. (Can Pac Swire/Flckr)

Many Vancouver-area hospitals, fire stations, schools and apartment blocks have not been sufficiently upgraded to withstand a big earthquake, says an expert who is urging the city to upgrade a range of public buildings.

While the province and city have poured billions into upgrading public infrastructure, including roads, bridges, tunnels, and schools, there are still big gaps, said Prof. Carlos Ventura, director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Facility at the University of British Columbia.

"In general, we have made a lot of progress towards preparing for an earthquake," Prof. Ventura said. "But many things have yet to be done," he said. 

Ventura singled out Vancouver-area hospitals and fire stations as those institutions most in need of upgrades.

"They are essential to the community," Ventura said adding that their level of preparedness on a scale of one to 10 is less than five.

"Many hospitals are very in need of a serious retrofit."

Poorly constructed condos at risk

Ventura also noted that many Vancouver apartment buildings that were constructed in the 1980s and 1990s are at risk of serious damage in a large quake.

Many of those buildings weren't built to high standards and have already needed repairs for water leaks.

"We have a good inventory of wood frame construction (buildings) that were very poorly built," Ventura said. "The construction practices were poor."

Vancouver school officials, meanwhile concede that about 50 of the city's 116 schools have been identified as high risk in the event of a quake. Many may collapse.

 "We can't have our kids in unsafe schools," school board chair Mike Lombardi said. Upgrades have been done at 22 schools. And there are plans in place to retrofit another 29, Lombardi said.

However, the Vancouver school board and province have been at an impasse over the pace and funding of school upgrades.

The school board has complained that the province has withheld grants to pay for retrofits. The province says it's waiting for the board to complete long term upgrade plans before it will release the money.

Vancouver's Kitsilano Secondary School has already undergone a seismic upgrade to ensure it withstands an earthquake. (Kitsilano Secondary School)

$17 billion in seismic upgrades

According to a provincial background paper on earthquake preparedness, B.C. has committed, or has already invested, more than $17 billion in seismic infrastructure upgrades, including more than $4 billion in new bridge and highway upgrades.

However, not all of the money earmarked has been spent.

For example, the Ministry of Health has committed about $3 billion over the next three years for capital investments including upgrades to health centres across the province.

St. Paul's Hospital in downtown Vancouver is slated to close down and a new facility will have up-to-date seismic design.

Only 6 fire halls meet code

Jonathan Gormick, a spokesperson for Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services said the city has been working to upgrade the city's 20 fire halls. Right now, just six fire halls meet the national building codes. And another two fire stations are undergoing retrofits.

Gormick didn't disagree with Ventura's assessment that many fire stations need seismic upgrades. He said the same could be said for most public buildings.

"I don't think there will ever be a period of time where every fire hall is perfect and we don't need to work on one of the facilities," said Gormick.