B.C. earthquake-planning exercise inadequate: federal report

A multinational exercise last June on the West Coast was designed to test government responses to an earthquake and tsunami hitting the Vancouver area. An internal report on the results says federal officials delivered a confused and inadequate performance, including no preparation at all for a tsunami.

Federal disaster plan for dealing with West Coast tsunami lacks ... a tsunami plan: internal report

Children participate in The Great British Columbia Shake Out, the largest province-wide earthquake drill. A new report suggests the federal government is not fully prepared to respond to a major West Coast quake. (The Canadian Press)

A new report gives poor grades to the federal government for its "confused" performance during an exercise last summer to test preparations for a massive earthquake off British Columbia.

The internal document faults Ottawa for bad communication and shoddy protocols — including the lack of any plan to respond to a destructive tsunami triggered by a quake.

"This effort is remarkably inadequate," said disaster-management expert Paul Kovacs, who reviewed the report after CBC News obtained it through an Access to Information request. "Most of the information known about this hazard does not appear to have been used in this exercise."

"Pacific Quake '16" was a federal component of an international effort in June 2016 to test how effectively governments could respond to a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the southwestern coast of British Columbia and Portland, Ore.

Such powerful earthquakes are rare around the world, the last one of that magnitude hitting the region on Jan. 26, 1700.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was lead for the exercise, and created the imaginary scenario of a morning quake on June 7, followed by strong aftershocks and a tsunami.

Vancouver, Victoria and other centres suffered damage in the mock disaster. And 60 per cent of the province's population lost all communications during the "Cascadia Rising" scenario, as the Americans dubbed it.

Paul Kovacs, a disaster-planning expert, says the federal performance in an earthquake exercise called Pacific Quake '16 was inadequate. (ICLR)

The British Columbia government also joined in, calling their emergency efforts Coastal Response; the Canadian Forces participated with Exercise Staunch Maple. More than 20,000 people took part on both sides of the border.

Ottawa has come under fire in the past for its poor disaster preparedness, notably a critical Senate committee report in 2008; and a report from the auditor general of Canada in 2009 that concluded Public Safety "has not exercised leadership necessary to co-ordinate emergency management activities, including critical infrastructure protection in Canada."

'Confusion' and 'delays'

Stung by the findings, Public Safety created a Federal Emergency Response Plan — but the internal document found that the plan was full of holes.

"Roles and responsibilities … are not clearly defined," says the after-action report prepared by the Government Operations Centre, an Ottawa-based emergency hot room run by Public Safety Canada.

Strategic planning was described as "ad hoc," and the process for accessing federal assistance was "not clear, which resulted in confusion, and created delays in response."

This exercise is not a rigorous evaluation- Disaster-planning expert Paul Kovacs, on an earthquake-preparedness operation last summer on the West Coast

There were repeated information logjams, and staff relied heavily on email systems — which almost certainly would be wiped out in an actual catastrophe.

The report also noted that Public Safety's plan "does not include activities related to responding to the aftermath of a tsunami," even though the Cascadia Rising scenario specifically included a tsunami hitting southwest Vancouver Island.

Didn't do the job

Kovacs, executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) at the University of Western Ontario, commended Public Safety for undertaking the exercise.

But he said it should have been designed as a tougher test, and have included more publicly available research about the specific vulnerabilities of Canada's West Coast to earthquake damage rather than piggybacking on an American scenario.

"This exercise is not a rigorous evaluation," he said in an interview. "The plan was inadequate — it didn't do the job it was supposed to."

A survivor pushes a bicycle on his way to a shelter in Minamisanriku town, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, a week after a massive 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami. The disaster killed an estimated 16,000 people. (Hiroaki Ono/Yomiuri Shimbun/Japan Out/The Associated Press)

Kovacs said research sponsored by insurance companies has projected as much as $75 billion of damage from a major earthquake, a level of destruction not appropriately accounted for in Pacific Quake '16.

A spokesman for Public Safety Canada says the exercise has helped officials to bolster emergency planning.

"The Government of Canada has detailed plans in place to respond to a major earthquake in Canada and works continuously to further improve its readiness," Jean-Philippe Levert said in an email.

"The Government of Canada is using the lessons learned from the exercise to improve its preparedness."

Kovacs, whose non-profit institute is funded by the insurance industry, said the exercise did not include any discussion of prevention, even though disasters can be instructive for building more resilient infrastructure to withstand the next earthquake.

"There is considerable scope to prevent large losses but the report does not explore issues beyond expressing concern about clarity of responsibility for response."

"This sort of exercise should be done at least once a year," he added.

Members of Vancouver's Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team — including a sniffer dog — rappel off the roof of city hall to practise searching for victims trapped after an earthquake. (CBC)

Levert said no date has been set for the federal government's next major earthquake exercise.

There have been only seven 9.0 magnitude earthquakes worldwide from 1700 to date, including the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami off Japan. Forty-metre waves devastated the coast and roared up to 10 kilometres inland, wrecking a nuclear-power facility. Almost 16,000 people died.

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Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby