1314 Shear, rattle, and roll
On Borrowed Time: North America’s Next Big Earthquake
by Gregor Craigie
Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2021
$22.95 / 9781773102061
Reviewed by Brian Harvey
What does it mean to be unsettled? Roget’s Thesaurus offers some synonyms — unstable, displaced, even deranged — and to me the word sits somewhere between “uneasy” and “totally freaked out.” To be unsettled implies that something has done the unsettling; it’s usually an induced state of mind. Sometimes the feeling is temporary; sometimes, if the experience was bad enough, it lasts a lifetime.
The best example of an unsettling experience must surely be the earthquake. An earthquake isn’t a car narrowly missing your bicycle or a holdup on a deserted beach, although either of those experiences would make anyone twitchy. Instead, an earthquake unsettles literally: the ground moves. Yes, the occasional driver can be an idiot, and robbers rob, but solid ground isn’t supposed move under your feet. When it does, it’s the definition of unsettling.
Gregor Craigie’s first book is called On Borrowed Time: North America’s Next Big Quake. Craigie is a journalist who hosts the CBC radio show On the Island and, importantly for the subject of his book, lives in Victoria, a city uncomfortably close to the Cascadia subduction zone that runs from northern Vancouver Island to Cape Mendocino in California. Victorians are earthquake-aware but not especially earthquake-prepared, and that interests Craigie. In his first chapter, on the earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand in February 2011, he tells us that what really fascinates him about earthquakes is the failure of people to respond to risk. That’s a theme for our times, and the book’s appearance at a time of intense public scrutiny of world leaders’ feeble response to the worst risk humanity has ever faced — climate change — is fortuitous. Readers of On Borrowed Time have to wait until the last chapter, “Countering Complacency,” for Craigie’s thoughts on the risk-avoidance conundrum. It’s worth the wait, because he delivers a strong summary of the psychological basis for ignoring risk, as well as the tangle of social forces that embody those basic human tendencies.
The introductory chapter on Christchurch illustrates the recurring theme that “earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings kill people” and introduces the reader to shear walls and unreinforced masonry, two terms they’ll come across time and again in the chapters that follow. The book is organized geographically and splits North America into three regions (west coast, middle, east coast) a framework I found frustrating. I kept wishing for a thematic treatment instead, because the geographic scheme seemed leaky. At least two chapters – “Mountains of Fire” (about volcanoes), and “The Problem of Prediction,” draw heavily on experience outside North America (as in fact do many of the chapters) and seem not to belong in any particular geographic section. In fact, the whole subject of volcanoes feels orphaned in a book about earthquakes. What’s the connection? There must be one, but all I could find was the fact that sometimes volcanoes collapse and cause tsunamis. That caveat aside, if there’d been no chapter on volcanoes I wouldn’t have experienced Craigie’s unforgettable description of lahars, which are landslides of volcanic debris that often find their way into river beds to form an inescapable torrent of steaming mud. His description of the death of Omayra Sanchez, a thirteen-year-old trapped in mud for sixty hours following an eruption in Colombia in 1985, is chilling.
There is much that is chilling in this book, sometimes to the point of repetition. Buildings collapse in horrible ways, people are buried, killed outright, swept away or simply never found. Bureaucracies do what bureaucracies do. Many chapters begin with eyewitness records, a powerful journalistic technique but one that can be overused. (The image of masonry falling out of the sky is horrifying, but once is probably enough). Repetition notwithstanding, On Borrowed Time moves swiftly from the west to the east coast of North America, and the earthquake phenomenon reveals itself as Craigie describes the causes and results of quakes that most readers will never have heard of.
Readers in British Columbia, especially those that live on the coast, will identify with Craigie’s concern about the “next big one,” and the wealth of information on tsunamis, which can result from impossibly distant earthquakes, reminds us that coastal residents have much more than the Cascadia subduction zone to worry about. I read part of the book during a visit to Pacific Rim National Park, where tsunami warning signs are common, and Craigie’s stories of people racing for higher ground while a tsunami closed in at hundreds of kilometres per hour had me taking a fresh look at my surroundings. There are beach resorts outside Tofino that are perilously close to sea level, and my hotel’s tsunami evacuation card instructed me to pile into my car and race to high ground in Tofino. Along with everybody else, and on a road that dips close to sea level for every gorgeous stretch of sandy beach.
The west coast of North America was, of course, settled long before the string of tsunami-trap hotels appeared on the road to Tofino, and Craigie well knows the importance of Indigenous oral traditions in piecing together the local history of earthquakes and tsunamis. Accounts collected by early twentieth century ethnographers are rich in stories of great shakings and inundations, and Craigie relates one especially compelling story of a withdrawal and resurgence of the ocean so enormous that Cape Flattery became a temporary island. A tip from Richard Mackie, editor of The Ormsby Review, led me to a fascinating academic article on Indigenous seismic traditions called “When the Mountain Dwarfs Danced;” in it I found accounts of cedar canoes trapped in the upper branches of giant trees. There are records of costumed earthquake dances and myths about the origins of earthquakes that run from the dancing dwarfs (a Nuu-chah-nulth belief) to ghosts (Kwakwaka’wakw) to titanic struggles between Thunderbird and killer whale (from the Quileute, in Washington State).
Throughout the book, and especially in the compelling final chapters on complacency and living with risk, Craigie makes what he sees as a critical distinction between communities who have experienced earthquakes and those who haven’t, at least not in living memory. Both may be at risk from the “next big one,” he says, but the odds of actual preparation (changing building codes, retrofitting buildings, stockpiling supplies) are much higher in the experienced community. That makes sense, and the same reasoning applies to the global complacency about climate change: nobody’s unequivocally experienced it, so warnings are easy to ignore. In Japan, where the earth moves every day, people are so case-hardened by earthquakes an outsider could be fooled into thinking they’re complacent. They’re not. I’ve seen the patched-together cracks in the sidewalks in Kobe, and the rickety “temporary” housing still occupied three years after the quake there in 1995, and there is no chance that any Japanese person has any misconceptions about the seriousness of earthquakes and tsunamis. September 1 is Disaster Prevention Day and commemorates the Great Kanto Earthquake that levelled Tokyo on that day in 1923, and every household is expected to have a survival kit for each family member. Many kits include a pointed hood called a bosai zukin, made of cushioned fireproof material and a reminder that, after the earthquake, fire follows. Yet, when the Tokyo hospital tower where I was visiting a patient began to sway gently, I seemed the only person who was terrified. I was on the ninth floor, and there were more floors above me, and the whole building did a slow shimmy under my feet for what seemed forever but was probably less than a minute. All that time, elevator doors continued to ding politely for stone-faced visitors and nurses in pink pantsuits and none of them batted an eye. This didn’t look like vigilance to me, but it wasn’t complacency either.
One of the experts Craigie consulted makes a point about the difference between individual initiative and group trust, and a collective society like Japan would certainly fit the latter. But all those nurses and visitors would have a Safety First backpack at home, complete with an auto-inflating sleeping pad and waterless shampoo. If they lived in an apartment their balcony would have the legally required sling-and-rope device for rappelling to street level. As children they ran regular earthquake drills. Whether they also trusted that the government’s vigilance about building construction would keep them safe, I’m not so sure. A year after my visit to the hospital, that trust was severely tested in the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and the authorities did not come off well.
On Borrowed Time is full of disturbing details, and readers will find their vocabularies expanded. Unreinforced masonry buildings? Just step into an “old town” boutique or coffee shop. Shear walls? You might have one, you might not. Probably you should. And — my favourite — a “soft first floor”? Don’t park anywhere near one. There are also the things one doesn’t automatically connect with earthquakes, like dams. Craigie includes an eye-opener on how vulnerable dams are to the shaking of the ground, and how surprisingly far from a city they can be and still cause horrific damage if the dam is breached and the reservoir behind it takes the path of least resistance. The next time I’m in Campbell River I know I’ll be looking over my shoulder at the John Hart Dam.
Craigie’s writing is well suited to such a disturbing subject. It’s solid and dependable — just what buildings in an earthquake zone should be. There’s not a lot of decoration to detract from the message, although I did love his dry description of how, in 1929, the tsunami that hit the Bowen Peninsula in Newfoundland “smashed into wharves and fish stores, pulling 280,000 pounds of salt cod back into the ocean.” Apart from my earlier questioning the organization of the book, I do have a few quibbles, and one sigh of relief. The sigh came when I realized Craigie was consistently referring to “British Columbia and the U.S. Pacific Northwest.” For Canadians from Prince Rupert to Victoria it’s awfully satisfying not to have your part of BC lumped in with an American sub-region.
The quibbles remain — redundancies like “critical and desperately needed” or “scorching hot day” and, to my disappointment, the annoying use of “data” in the singular — but all writers make gaffes like these. Editors usually catch them. More could have been made of the retrofitting of buildings in Utah, a place Craigie describes as seismically “woefully unprepared” before lauding the expensive retrofitting of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City and even going so far as to quote the church President’s calling it a “stunning jewel in the crown of pioneer achievement.” Surely the retrofit of a monstrous neo-gothic church (and the equally awkward City Hall with its comical, arbitrary dome) deserves some comment on how societies prioritize such things? I would love to have heard Craigie’s thoughts on what looks like a striking example of his main interest — the disconnect between risk and action.
But it’s hard to nit-pick with someone who’s prepared to tear the cedar shingles off the sides of his house and nail sheets of plywood to the studs. Craigie’s own retrofit comes at the end of On Borrowed Time, in an epilogue on his determination to safeguard his family. The sheets of plywood will tie the upper stories of his character home more securely to the basement so that increased pressure from below the house can be transferred to the walls. That’ll reduce the shearing forces that can, as his opening example of Christchurch shows, tear a building down. It’s in this epilogue that the question all readers will have lived with since beginning the book — “Yes, but what should I do?” — is answered. Craigie’s own plan is a much-needed model for people like me who live where the ground has shaken in the past and is bound to shake again. After nearly two hundred fifty unsettling pages, ending on a personal note of hope and action is the way to go.
Brian Harvey grew up on the West Coast of Canada and trained as a marine biologist. He began writing newspaper columns and science-travel articles for magazines in 1997. His first book for a general audience, The End of the River, was a Globe and Mail “Best 100” book for 2008 and was followed by two works of fiction, Beethoven’s Tenth and Tokyo Girl. His latest book, Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father, reviewed here by Theo Dombrowski, was a 2019 Governor General’s Award finalist for nonfiction and an Independent Publishers Book Awards medalist in the memoir category. Editor’s note: Brian Harvey has also reviewed books by J.B. MacKinnon, Craig Taylor, Trevor Carolan, Robert Amos, Sam McKinney, and Alex Zimmerman for The Ormsby Review. He lives in Nanaimo.
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