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episode # 35

Will Vancouver Survive the Earthquake?

Engineer and Seismic Specialist John Sherstobitoff joins Adam & Matt to discuss whether or not Vancouver is truly ready for the earthquake. You will want to strap in for this one!

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Episode Summary


Tell us about yourself


I have worked in the seismic upgrading industry for 26 years. I’m a structural engineer and chair of the standing committee on earthquake design.


How prepared is Vancouver and the Lower Mainland for an earthquake?


There are two aspects to preparedness; one is response after the earthquake. Our emergency management teams all have good plans in place and they are always getting better. Utilities, like BC Hydro and Fortis, have systems in place for bringing people water, gas and power. But the other aspect, mitigation before the earthquake, is an ongoing challenge. It’s upgrading versus funding. We could always do better. There’s a plan to upgrade all of the schools over the next couple of years but many other buildings also need seismic upgrades.


How do we rate compared to other regions that have experienced earthquakes?


Places like Japan and Chile, that have seen devastating earthquakes, have ramped up their preparedness and mitigation. In the US, some cities are more prepared than others. We’re ahead of them in some areas and behind in others. Because we haven’t had the big one yet, we haven’t had to ramp up our preparedness as publicly as some of these other countries.


On seismic and building codes:


Our current building code was put in place in 2012. It was updated in 2015 and they are working to bring those changes into the BC building code quickly. The national codes are updated every five years so are constantly improving. Our current codes are effective. However, they are effective in that they are designed for life safety – residents in a building are all safe and can get out. The code doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to return and use the building. There are higher codes in place for schools and higher still for hospitals so that there is a greater chance of those buildings being usable post-earthquake.


There’s a worldwide movement for performance based design codes. If people want their buildings to be reusable after an earthquake, that’s the performance we should be designing for.


What type of private buildings are at risk?


We have to remember that every building is unique and every earthquake is unique. Even the type of soil a building sits on, which can change from block to block, can impact performance drastically.


Single family homes built before the 1960’s could be at risk. However, if they have more partition walls, a few windows and good anchorage to the foundation, that risk is decreased. Unreinforced masonry, like concrete blocks, brick or stones, have historically performed poorly. We also see non-ductile concrete, usually used pre 1970’s, performing well in some earthquakes but very poorly after earthquakes reach a certain size.


On wood frame construction:


All modern wood frame buildings are engineered and structured to current codes. They are designed to perform well in earthquakes. But wood frame homes from the 60’s/70’s without engineering can be vulnerable. This era of single family timber homes could be at risk.


What advice do you have for people purchasing a home?


Be wary of unreinforced masonry and old timber buildings with a lot of space. Do your due diligence when buying – check the build date, engineering, etc. You can also do a rapid seismic assessment at low cost to check your home.


Is there an area of Vancouver or the Lower Mainland that’s more at risk?


In an earthquake, we first experience strong shaking. Afterwards, areas with poor soil could see their soil liquify or move which could damage buildings, pipes, powerlines, etc. Areas like Richmond, False Creek and river deltas coming into the inlets all have this second level vulnerability.


What steps can the government take for our safety?


Like what they’re doing with BC schools, the government could upgrade all BC public owned buildings. They could set aside an annual fun for these upgrades. For private buildings, the government’s role is a bit tougher. What can the government or others do to incentivize private owners to upgrade their buildings. We can look at tax breaks, moving the costs to the public, etc. It’s a worldwide challenge and there isn’t one easy solution.


Are we safe and doing everything we can?


Everyone wants to do more and we should be doing more. But it comes down to money. How do we balance everything that our city needs? If an earthquake were to happen, everything we do to prepare now would payoff ten or twenty-fold. There are lots of opportunities for us to do more. And once an earthquake happens, there’s no going back to try and prepare more.


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