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On Borrowed Time: A shakey response to great risk

What to think about when you cannot trust the ground you're on: An excerpt from Gregor Craigie's non-fiction book, a finalist for the Balsillie Award

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The Balsillie Prize is awarded annually for a book of nonfiction that advances and influences policy debates on a wide range of social, political, economic, or cultural topics relevant to Canadians. The jury features author and physician Samantha Nutt, digital strategist Scott Young, and policy expert Taki Sarantakis. They sifted through more than 60 titles to get to the shortlist of four. The winner of the $60,000 first prize will be announced Wednesday. Here is an excerpt from one of the finalists:

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Gregor Craigie

Gregor Craigie, photo by Rebecca Craigie
Gregor Craigie, photo by Rebecca Craigie

Thousands of deaths, millions of people at risk, billions of dollars in potential damage: the numbers associated with earthquakes are overwhelming. For many of us who live in a seismic zone, the initial reaction is shock or surprise at the potential devastation. But that often gives way to a form of devastation fatigue. Not knowing what to do or think, we simply stop thinking about the risk at all.

My interest in earthquakes precedes my move to Victoria. I’ve been thinking about them ever since I first arrived in Vancouver in the 1990s, largely because I’m a journalist who’s interviewed many quake survivors, scientists, and engineers. I’ve also had a close look at a lot of the innovation: watching engineers shake buildings, ducking under desks with school kids, and squeezing my lanky six-foot-five frame inside North America’s first tsunami-survival capsule. So the interest has been professional.

But it’s also personal. As interesting as the scientific and engineering challenges are, what really fascinates me is our response to the risk — or, in many cases, our lack of response. I suspect millions of us are largely indifferent because we’ve never lived through a deadly earthquake and don’t know what it’s like. To be clear, I’ve never been in a major earthquake. But when I was 12 years old, my family was in a car crash that killed my dad and nearly paralyzed my sister. I’ve never forgotten the catastrophe that came without warning and shattered my family in seconds. I get a similar sense from every survivor of deadly earthquakes I’ve ever interviewed — they never saw it coming and can never forget it.

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Jim Reimer, a pastor from Nelson, B.C., was in Haiti in 2010. “The floor literally lifted up about three feet into the air and threw me across the floor,” he says. “It just threw me!” The horror of mangled bodies piled up after the quake traumatized Jim deeply. “I thought I should be pastoring, but I didn’t have it in me. I was broken.” Jim rallied and has since helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Haitians.

But along with a heavy heart for the victims, he’s been left with a deep sense of anxiety that whatever building he enters might collapse. “I go into a building and the first thing I do is look for an exit.”

Haley Westra was 18 when she flew to Nepal on a volunteer school-building project — and landed in a giant earthquake. “You’d look over to your left, and there’s a building coming down on a family, and you’d look over to your right, and people are just running away from the buildings. And there’s screaming and chaos, and you’re just frozen.” Thousands were buried and millions left homeless in the Himalayan kingdom.

The aftershocks continued, but Haley stayed and helped the people of a small mountain village rebuild. When she returned to Victoria, she tripped in the airport a few times because she wasn’t accustomed to the ground under her feet remaining still. Haley went on to study nursing, and now she wonders if her hometown is prepared. Apart from physical infrastructure, she questions if we’ll have adequate mental health resources. “It’s a trauma, so people will need emotional support and psychological support for what they’ve seen, and the fact that you cannot trust the ground,” she says. “I don’t trust the ground I walk on anymore.”

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On a sunny summer day in 2017, I received a copy of a comprehensive seismic report commissioned by the City of Victoria — a thorough examination of the building stock in British Columbia’s capital city.

The study considered several different scenarios, and in the worst crustal and subduction earthquake scenarios, the damage it predicted was staggering: two out of every three buildings in the city of Victoria could either collapse or face demolition.

These are the homes of teachers, doctors, police officers, firefighters, professors, scientists, journalists, managers, ministers, and midwives. What will happen to our city if two out of every three of us are left homeless in a single day? What will happen if many of us die and even more are injured?

“If you’re going to worry about earthquakes,” one person told me, “you should probably just move somewhere else.”

For many people who live in an active seismic zone, that looks like the only real choice: leave, or refuse to think about it. But a growing number of people have been thinking about earthquakes in recent years; they have discovered that there are other choices, and we can reduce the risk.

Excerpted from On Borrowed Time © 2021 by Gregor Craigie. Reprinted by permission of Goose Lane Editions.

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