A few weeks ago we felt our first West Coast earthquake. Ironically, it was much weaker than the only other earthquake we have ever felt which was, in all places, Ottawa. Back then we were in our basement and heard and felt what we thought was a snow plow with its blade set too low, except that it was the middle of the summer. The epicentre of that magnitude 4-something quake was 50km northeast of Ottawa. The quake we heard (although didn’t feel) a few weeks ago was centred just a few kilometres away but was only a 2.9.
A few years ago I did a bunch of reading on disaster preparedness and started accumulating some things that might make life a little easier if critical infrastructure was suddenly destroyed. Just one example is the gravity water filter we bought which will basically take dirty puddle water and turn it into nectar of the gods at perhaps 2 litres per hour. Mind you, in the middle of the summer here, you’d be hard pressed to find such a source; the filter can’t deal with salt. As it is, we currently use the unit with optional charcoal filters which are slower than the basic ones but which, in addition to removing all the little bugs that could make you sick, also remove icky algae and chlorine flavours from the local St. Mary’s Lake water.
On that note, since February 2, many of our island residents also on St Mary Lake water have been unable to drink their tap water because of a bloom of blue-green algae which their separate treatment plant cannot remove. Those residents were saved from this near-Walkertonmore from lower toxicity than from perfect monitoring and reaction; residents were drinking the water for several days before routine tests came back positive and mitigations were put into effect. In any case, Walkertonism is reason enough to use a filter. One simply cannot trust the system to do its job at the best of times let alone during a disaster; not because it is particularly inept, but because it was designed, and is run, by humans.
Yet this applies to every aspect of civilization as we know it. The systems that make life relatively easy make us blind us to our dependence on them. And we gleefully trade systemic resilience for greater efficiency to achieve what we believe will lead to be a higher standard of living. But when the system fails, we suddenly recognize how vulnerable we really are.
On Salt Spring, we import ~95% of the food we eat. It is instructive to take the Vesuvius 8am departure to Crofton because, while waiting, you will see 3 or 4 food trucks arrive from Vancouver Island (from distribution centres in Nanaimo, probably, which are themselves dependent on vast shipping networks in Richmond on the mainland south of Vancouver). Conversely, the 9:50am ferry departure from Fulford Harbour to Swartz Bay is interesting because you will see 3 or 4 garbage trucks which haul refuse from our on-island transfer station to the landfill on the Saanich Peninsula. Food in – garbage out. I used to think that if people saw this cycle in action that they would all take dramatic steps to reduce their environmental footprint and their dependence on the system.
So our dependence on systems is a given. The question I ask myself is whether we are significantly more food-dependent than, say, the average Vancouverite. Yes, we are dependent on the ferries which is a separate system that they are not dependent on, but is that a LOT worse than being dependent on a supply line that is still, on average, 2000+kms long? The Fraser Valley does produce a lot of fresh produce for several months of the year but we are still utterly dependent on people far away for our sustenance; the Canadian prairies for probably most of the calories and points south for the fresh yummy stuff .
Perhaps answering the question depends on the disruption imagined. In the event of an earthquake, the resulting tsunami could conceivably cause some damage to terminal berths but I doubt that it would do catastrophic damage (maybe in Victoria where it’s less sheltered although I don’t think anything important arrives downtown- no offense to any American tourists who may be reading). I’d think it would be like a really fast tide that first goes out and then comes in and surely – surely – the engineers thought of that. The biggest risk to fresh food supply might be the flooding of YVR which could stop air transport. Apparently, the risk of YVR flooding is significant due to a tsunami from an oceanic earthquake. Mind you, it’s no Sendai; Vancouver Island would take the brunt of a tsunami. The bigger problem, supposedly, is airport soil liquefaction that would occur from a nearby earthquake which would have the whole property sink into an aviation soup.
Without YVR, things would get sketchy, just from a logistics point of view. Outside help, food and equipment would either have to be flown in to more distant airports with shorter runways. Mind you, if the quake was that bad, then perhaps many of the roads, train tracks and bridges in the area would also be demolished. For this just-in-time system to work such incredible efficiency, many little pieces have to fit together just so. When just a few pieces are taken out, increasingly expensive workarounds can be implemented. When many critical links are broken, all hell presumably breaks loose.
To say nothing of broken water, sewer, electricity, fuel or communications networks, food stores would run out of food in a few days, particularly with the unhelpful hoarding instinct that strikes us in the face of scarcity. A few people who are on the ball stock up while other starve.
As we wait to see when the Japanese authorities admit that Fukushima is actively melting down, spewing clouds of radioactive debris first through their own country and then to points beyond, perhaps a slight taste of discomfort in reading about our own engineered fallibility is appropriate.