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Over 200 schools in B.C. still vulnerable to earthquakes

Past B.C. governments have pushed back deadlines to complete school seismic upgrades from 2020 to 2030. The current administration failed to provide a timeline for when it plans to finish the retrofits.
Caretaker Dave Leblanc sets up portable handwashing stations around Dr. Charles Best secondary in Co
Caretaker Dave Leblanc sets up portable handwashing stations around Dr. Charles Best Secondary in Coquitlam, B.C. The school is one of at least 16 that remain in the 'business case development' phase.

Fewer than half of B.C. schools slated for seismic upgrades have been completed, leaving more than 200 facilities vulnerable to earthquakes nearly two decades after the provincial government first promised to close the gap.

Two newly upgraded elementary schools in Richmond, B.C., welcomed nearly 700 students to class Tuesday, in what Minister of Education and Child Care Rachna Singh said was “proof of our commitment to continue investing in students in Richmond.”

But across the province, many schools continue to wait. The latest publicly available data indicates that of the 497 schools scheduled for upgrades to protect them from an earthquake, only 219 have been completed.

Another 12 school seismic upgrade projects are under construction, at least six are proceeding to construction and 16 are in the business case development phase, according to the July data and statements from the province.

Another 244 — just under half —  remain “future priorities” but have yet to be upgraded to withstand a major earthquake.

That's 88 more schools than were on the waiting list when the BC NDP took power in 2017.

Initial deadline pushed forward 10 years

In 2005, then-Premier Gordon Campbell promised to retrofit all seismically at-risk schools by 2020. Under the Christy Clark BC Liberal government, that deadline was pushed to 2025 and then as late as 2030.

In the lead up to its 2017 electoral win, the current BC NDP said it would speed up seismic upgrade promises made under the BC Liberals under a realistic timeline.   

BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) president Clint Johnston said “classes should only be conducted in seismically sound facilities” and that all the costs required to retrofit and maintain those facilities “should be fully funded by the provincial government.”

He also said the BCTF was pleased to see recent capital spending commitments made in B.C.’s latest provincial budget.

Since taking power in 2017, the BC NDP has approved roughly half of the $1.9 billion spent on the province’s Seismic Mitigation Program. The province has also earmarked another $1 billion for seismic retrofits in its latest capital spending plan.

“We look forward to seeing those seismic upgrades completed according to the promised timeline,” Johnston said.

What that timeline is remains unclear. Glacier Media asked the Ministry of Education when it intends to complete its seismic retrofit plan for schools.

In an email with nine bullet point statements, the ministry did not provide an end date for the program.

Instead, they pointed to the results of a 2015 update to national building codes, which incorporated a significant increase in the ground force motions of a subduction earthquake along the Cascadia fault line. Current expectations are for more intense shaking on Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii, with more than double the intensity in some regions than previously assumed. Impacts are also expected to be greater in areas with soft soils, specifically Richmond, according to the province. 

“The 2025 and 2030 targets were implemented prior to this improved scientific understanding of the impacts that seismic events could have on buildings such as schools,” wrote the spokesperson.

How could a megathrust earthquake affect B.C.’s coastal communities?

One of the most devastating earthquake scenarios would be a megathrust event occurring in the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ). That’s where the Juan de Fuca plate is slowly diving under the North American plate along a 1,000-kilometre arc curving off the coast of Vancouver Island south toward northern California.

Once an oceanic plate sinks deep enough into Earth’s hot interior, it can melt, feeding a throng of volcanoes around the edge of the Pacific known as the Ring of Fire. At times, the two tectonic plates can grind against each other. As they slow, pressure builds until one day they slip, releasing vast sums of energy in a single catastrophic moment.

This process is responsible for some of the world’s most violent recorded earthquakes, including an 8.8 magnitude earthquake that decimated Concepción, Chile, in 2010, and the 9 magnitude Tōhoku earthquake that hit Japan in 2011 and triggered a massive tsunami and high-profile meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

At least 19 megathrust earthquakes 9 magnitude and above have occurred along the CSZ since the end of the last ice age. 

But for years, scientists thought the B.C., Washington and Oregon coasts were seismically inactive — despite Indigenous stories that told otherwise.

In the 1990s, scientists examining marshlands in Washington State and deformed coastlines in B.C. found enough evidence to confidently declare a major earthquake last struck the region on Jan. 26, 1700, at 9 p.m. Today, seismologists estimate such an earthquake returns once every 500 years.

According to one recent Metro Vancouver report, a magnitude 9 earthquake has a 14 per cent chance of hitting the coast over the next 50 years, although others suggest the probability could be as high as 37 per cent.

Moderate earthquake could lead to thousands of dead and injured

It's extremely difficult to predict what will face the most damage when the next major earthquake hits. That’s because much of the damage comes down to where and how deep the epicentre of the earthquake lies.

But even a moderately powerful earthquake is expected to exact a devastating toll on B.C.’s South Coast.

According to one B.C. government estimate, a magnitude 7 earthquake centred on Metro Vancouver would lead to 2,000 dead and 1,000 critically injured. Another 6,500 are expected to require hospitalization and 21,000 more would need help from a paramedic or someone who can provide first aid. The estimates imagine a scenario where an atmospheric river combines with an earthquake to make over 16,000 buildings uninhabitable and push 70,000 families and individuals from their homes.

An epicentre in Victoria, meanwhile, would lead to 1,000 deaths, 3,700 hospitalizations, and another 10,000 injured. Roughly 43,000 households would be displaced.

Suzanne Hoffman, CEO of the B.C. School Trustees Association, told Glacier Media such a scenario would be “a travesty for families across the province,” and while many are working to make schools safe, the timeline “feels like it's long.”

For that reason, Hoffman said seismic upgrades are “the number one priority” for school districts across the Fraser Valley, Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island. She also said the process for a school to apply for an upgrade is “incredibly complex” and ultimately weighed against schools deemed more at risk.

“There's an urgency to ensure that all the kids are safe and staff is safe in school,” said Hoffman. “That being said, there's a finite amount of dollars that are available.”