P3. narrative

One Fine Day

When it comes, it could strike on some fine afternoon like this one.

I first became aware of the word Tsunami over 30 years ago. Hokusai’s (1760-1849) famous print, almost Disney-like in its depiction of “The Great Wave”, was a favourite of mine. I had little or no conception of how large a “great wave” was, and his almost cheerful portrayal of a tsunami almost gave me an excuse not to investigate too much further.

Fast forward to December 2004. Few cannot have been made vividly aware of what a Tsunami was, following the 9.2 Indonesian Ocean earthquake due to the huge amount of global media coverage (including “home-videos”). Or stirred by the contents of those images. It killed 230,000 people.

The disastrous events in Japan of Friday March 11th (15,000 dead and 8,000 missing), again brought the word and its awful realities into the spotlight. This impact of the up to 39 metre wave was documented in even more terrifying detail as we were bombarded with countless video images and eyewitness accounts. As a result of disasters over the years (869, 1611, 1896) some communities had erected large stones at around 30m above sea-level. This Spring, it was the communities which assembled at these that were spared with their lives.

Co-incidentally, I moved at this time from somewhere in Vancouver that was 40m above sea-level, to somewhere 18m above sea-level. This got me thinking on what the impact on Vancouver of such an event might be. Most of the official web-sites describe Vancouver as a “low risk” area, but a “megathrust” event off the Pacific coast (along the Cascadia subduction zone) is due. This could unleash a 10m or possibly even 20m wave. On reaching land, a “run-up” height of 30 metres might be attained. Both the US and Canada consider elevations below 20m to be possible danger areas. How effective a barrier Vancouver Island is depends on the direction of the wave.

So what does this mean for us on the ground? Apparently False Creek is adjudged safe enough by Vancouver planners(?). These photographs result from a cycle ride around Vancouver, taking shots due north, east, south and west from each location. They are annotated with their elevation (ie vulnerability). In passing, they capture an almost random view of what is going on (or not going on) around the city one fine summer afternoon.

British Columbia guidance is slightly vague on how high the safe “high ground” has to be. You would like to think as knowledgeable Vancouverites, we are all aware of the elevation at which we live and work. Plus know where to go (and how) when the unthinkable happens. Not so. In the course of this exercise, I surprised myself with how low-lying certain areas are (beaches are a no-brainer, but urban streets more difficult to judge). If you’re tech-savvy take a peek at GoogleEarth: if not, find a topo-map. For official advice check www.getprepared.gc.ca.

However you source the information, do check it out.

Stephen Cogbill

June 2011, Vancouver