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Lessons from Japan: In aftermath of earthquake, community means survival

A former Japanese firefighter who went to Japan's quake-struck areas last March, explains what will become most important if an earthquake hits Vancouver.

Photo of Manabu Ogawa by Jenny Uechi

Manabu Ogawa, a former Japanese firefighter who went to the quake-struck areas in as part of the Japan Police and Fire Sports Federation last March, witnessed first-hand how even the most well-prepared cities can be wiped out by a single disaster. Ogawa spoke about his weeks in Miyagi prefecture last year, clearing rubble, delivering supplies and recovering bodies in the grim aftermath of the earthquake.

The day before he prepared to fly back to Japan to help its recovery efforts, he took some time out of the day to share his experiences, which contained important lessons to share for Vancouver in the event of a major quake. 

How prepared is Vancouver for a major earthquake? 

Working in his field, Ogawa said, he hears the same question from many people: if a major earthquake were to hit Vancouver, what would happen? 

“I tell them, 'Sorry, but, we'd probably be doomed,” he said with an apologetic smile.

Sitting in a cafe in Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver, he pointed to the clusters of glass towers rising from across the water.

“If you're terrified of quakes, you should stay away from downtown Vancouver. Richmond's not a good place to be either, because it's built on swamp land.”

As part of his training to become a firefighter, Ogawa meticulously studied building codes and architecture – as all firefighters in Japan are required to do, he added. Many of the buildings in Vancouver worried him because they seemed very vulnerable to earthquakes and prone to fire.

“I find a lot of the condo towers over here are built with a strong centre, and the floors are stacked around it, like branches or leaves on a tree,” he said.

“They're beautiful, but high-rises in Vancouver aren't really made to sway like those in Japan. Plus, being made out of glass – it's very dangerous if that shatters. If the materials aren't up to scratch, the whole thing could break at the centre and collapse.”

Ogawa echoed findings in a new report by the University of British Columbia, which found that high-rises in B.C. weren't constructed to withstand strong earthquakes, despite being fully compliant with building codes. 

Always be prepared for the worst 

On his laptop screen, Ogawa points to photos of a community centre in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, where his crew spent three days removing bodies and clearing rubble.

The photo was significant because it was one of the places where people had specifically been told to evacuate in case of a tsunami. 

“The people of this city had, in fact, been expecting a tsunami for several years," said Ogawa.

"If it were just a magnitude 7 earthquake, they would have all survived. But the waves that came were nothing like what you see in Hollywood movies -- it's not one big splash. The wave just kept coming, and coming inland."

About 80 people came to take shelter in the community centre, where they had been instructed to go. Yet no one survived. Just a few dozen people who went further inland to a mountain temple were spared, Ogawa said with a sombre expression. 

Ogawa and his crew undertake the grim task of searching for bodies and clearing the rubble at a community centre designated as a tsunami escape. "We had to sift through the rubble for even one fingernail, one tiny part of someone who used to be here, because so much was destroyed by the waves," he said.

Ogawa said that Vancouver didn't need to fear a tsunami so much – the islands were more exposed to such disasters – but that an escape plan taking into account worst case scenarios was vital to survival. 

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