The Big One’s coming: are you ready?

The Great B.C. Shakeout offers a chance to test community preparedness

For anyone but Rob Johns, finding yourself on the eighth floor of a strange building during an earthquake would be a frightening case of wrong place, wrong time.

Yet, despite flitting fear and shock at the situation, Johns found himself going through the motions of a drill he’d learned, taught and practised in his three years as a Victoria emergency planner and a planner for Saanich for three years before that.

It was Nov. 19, 2010, in an aftershock in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was just one of many aftershocks that followed the devastating Sept. 4 quake that crumbled sections of the city. Johns and four colleagues were in town to study the effects of that initial quake. What they got was a first-hand taste of the power of tectonic plates.

In that eighth-floor room, Johns felt the floor sway under his feet like an amusement park ride. It took a second for his mind to register what he had taught others to prepare for, as an emergency planner. A sideways glance revealed his precarious positioning – he was standing next to glass plate windows that could shatter in seconds.

The thought of running crossed his mind, but his training taught him otherwise. Johns found a desk, slipped underneath it, and covered his head.

“I was half emergency planner, half human. The movement was really quite incredible. It was as though the building moved back and forth a couple feet. It was like being on a ride.”

He rode the lurching building, noticing the way it rocked for the first seven seconds. When the ride didn’t end, Johns’ fear kicked in again slightly, thinking, “this is a bit more interesting than I thought it would be.”

Others did run. They ran on Sept. 4 and in the 4,000 subsequent aftershocks. It’s the instinctual reaction, but a treacherous one, Johns says. “You can’t outrun an earthquake – it’s happening everywhere.”

Buildings’ facades, especially brick, loosened from their perches on Christchurch’s structures like they will in Victoria the day a quake hits.

So Johns and a team of planners are organizing the biggest earthquake drill this province has ever seen, called the Great British Columbia ShakeOut.

The plan has been in the works for more than a year.

B.C.’s ShakeOut is modelled after California’s version and a small army of emergency planners from the Golden State have played a big role in bringing the drill to this province.

“We are an integrated working group, representing all levels of government, stakeholder agencies and academic side with earthquakes,” said Heather Lyle, the Vancouver-based co-chair of ShakeOut’s organizing committee alongside Johns, who is based in Victoria.

“We looked at all the key agencies we wanted to include and the not-for-profits like the Red Cross. They have such a good rapport with people. They’re already seen like a social help agency.”

ShakeOut’s organizers touch base with emergency planners from all participating B.C. municipalities daily, to share information and make sure everyone’s prepared for the mass drill.

“Our target initially was to get five per cent of the population (involved in the ShakeOut),” Lyle said.

Instead, to the organizers’ surprise, the ShakeOut is on target to attract 10 per cent of the population, with 320,000 B.C. workers and students having signed up to participate – 64,000 in the Capital Region alone.

“It’s not meant to scare people,” Lyle said. “That is always a concern when we try to do a disaster exercise or a drill. One of our objectives is to take away the fear by teaching people to protect themselves.”

Johns added emergency planners’ biggest challenge is educating people.

“Personally, I think it’s a really neat concept that we’re all going to do an earthquake drill at the exact same time,” he said.

“It will raise awareness of what to do in an earthquake, because people over 40 didn’t learn that in school.”

ecardone@vicnews.com

Mark your calendar

• What: The Great B.C. ShakeOut

• When: Wednesday, Jan. 26 – exactly 311 years since the 1700 Cascadia earthquake – 10 a.m.

• Where: All over B.C.

• Who: 320,000 British Columbians are registered, but all are encouraged to participate

• How: Turn on you radio and listen for the broadcast. Following the instructions, DROP under a desk, table, etc., COVER your head against falling objects, and HOLD ON for dear life until the “earthquake” ends.

• Why: To learn best practices for when an earthquake hits Canada’s West Coast