British Columbia

How to survive a catastrophic earthquake in B.C.

Provincial emergency response plans are still in their infancy, so when the big one strikes, British Columbians need to be prepared to survive on their own for at least a week, if not longer. Here's how to do it.

Province making progress on response plans, but officials say expect to be on your own at least a week

Five years after a major earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, residents there are still recovering. How prepared are you to survive a major earthquake in B.C.? ((Mark Baker/Associated Press))

It took the better part of two decades — and two damning reports from the office of B.C.'s Auditor General — for the province to get serious about preparing for a catastrophic earthquake. 

And in the nearly three years since the last AG report, the province has made significant strides in its emergency planning.

But a lot of the details around things like how to move water and medical supplies post-disaster have yet to be worked out, which is why emergency planners now recommend that all of us be prepared to be on our own for at least a week, if not two. 

That means knowing the risks, building a kit, and making a plan for you and your family. 

Check your local community plan

Regionally, North Shore Emergency Management and the Capital Regional District have particularly comprehensive programs. Both are great resources, even if you live outside those regions. 

Provincially, Emergency Management BC is the body in charge in the event of a major earthquake. This is a good place for a broader overview of what to expect and what to plan for. 

And ShakeOut BC is packed with information — including what to do in a number of scenarios, whether you're on the road, taking in an evening of theatre, or lounging in a city park.

Putting together a list

Once you've had a read through, print off a list of things you'll need to do to get prepared. We've compiled a list of additional things to think about below, based on advice from experts in the field. 

Most emergency planners recommend you keep a grab-and-go bag for every member of the family — usually an old backpack left somewhere easy to access — as well as a larger bag tucked somewhere out of the way. Some also keep extra grab-and-go bags in the trunk of the car, in a garage, or at work. 

Build your kit 

  • If you're a camper, you've already got a lot of what you might need to survive outdoors for a week or two if your home isn't safe enough to return to.
  • A major earthquake can be a frightening and disorienting experience, so throw some things that give you comfort in your kit, whether that's a good bar of chocolate, or a favourite stuffed animal.
  • If you've got pets, they also need food and water supplies.
  • Hold on to your old running shoes, and keep a pair in your kit, under your bed, at work, in your car, by the front door — you'll need them for navigating broken glass and debris.
  • It could be some time before basic services are up and running again, so pack a couple of weeks worth of medication, as well as old eyeglasses, prescriptions, epipens, and clean underwear.
  • Bank machines aren't likely to be working, so cash (small bills) will be essential.
  • Documents could also come in handy if it's a while before you're able to return home — include copies of your mortgage, insurance, and birth certificates.
  • Large garbage bags are good for keeping dry.
  • You can never have too many batteries.
  • Keep a list of things to grab last-minute with your kit — like your latest back-up drive, passports, and up-to-date eyeglasses.
  • Planners also recommend always keeping the gas tank in your vehicle at least half-full.

Make a plan 

  • If you have kids, talk to them about what could happen during an earthquake, and what will be expected of them.
  • Designate a meeting place in the event you're separated.
  • Plan routes to that meeting place from likely locations (school, work, the park, favourite restaurants).
  • Have a number of back-up adults for your kids to call on, especially if your work and your home are separated by a body of water.
  • Know the emergency plan for your kids' school.
  • Know the emergency plan for your office. 
  • If you're a business owner, keep back-ups of your systems and documents in a separate location.
  • If you're on holiday, learn the escape routes and pick a place to meet.
  • Nominate an out-of-province family member or friend to keep track of loved ones in the disaster zone, and have everyone text their situation to this person, as in-province communication systems are likely to be overwhelmed.
  • If your municipality offers one, sign up to emergency notifications.

Earthquake-proof your home

  • Remove any paintings from above your bed.
  • Strap bookshelves and heavy art to the studs.
  • Keep your heaviest items on lower shelves.
  • Check that you have earthquake insurance.
  • If you live in a condo, find out if your strata has a plan, and discuss with council the possibility of having an engineer inspect your building for vulnerabilities.
  • If you live in a single family home, consult with an engineer about simple upgrades.
  • Shore up your chimney if you have one, as this is where houses often fail.
  • Familiarize yourself and your kids with key home systems — know where the electrical box is, and how to shut off gas and water if need be.

Get to know your community

  • In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake, your neighbours will be your first responders, so throw a block party, and get to know them.
  • Learn who brings what skills to the table — whether that's first aid, a HAM radio license, or the ability to entertain children.
  • Figure out how you can help.
  • Collaborate on plans and kits.
  • Spearhead a neighbourhood emergency response plan.
  • Recruit neighbours to take a free workshop on preparing your community for the worst case scenario.

Know what to do when the shaking starts

  • Don't expect to be able to walk.
  • Prepare yourself for aftershocks.
  • Watch for downed power lines and broken gas lines.
  • Move away from hazards if you're outside — that includes trees and street signs.
  • If you have your cellphone with you, keep calls to a minimum, and text when you can instead.

Overall, experts say it's important to actually practise what to do in the event of an earthquake, so that it becomes automatic in a crisis.

"It's not enough to just think about where you're going to go in an earthquake," said Alison Bird, a seismologist with Earthquakes Canada.

"Because when you're in a stressful situation, your brain does not function properly, and you're not thinking about the right thing to do. If you don't practice, it's not going to happen."

And in the end, says Bird, no matter how prepared our governments are to respond to a disaster, we have a personal responsibility to be prepared so that we're able to take care of ourselves, our families, and our communities when the big one strikes.

This story is part of Fault Lines, a special CBC series on new thinking and new technology for predicting and surviving earthquakes in B.C. Find more information about our five-part podcast.