Book review On Borrowed Time by Gregor Craigie

Broadcast journalist Gregor Craigie has been on the radio; CBC Radio 1 Vancouver Island, CBS, the British Broadcasting Corporation and Public Radio International in the United States as well as CBC Television as a political reporter…

Audio snippet – the thinking behind the book

Vancouver Island’s largest historic earthquake was a magnitude 7.3 event that occurred at 10:13 a.m. on Sunday June 23, 1946. The epicentre was in the Forbidden Plateau area of central Vancouver Island, just to the west of Courtenay and Campbell River.

This earthquake caused considerable damage on Vancouver Island, felt as far away as Portland Oregon, and Prince Rupert B.C. and brought down 75% of the chimneys in the closest communities, Cumberland, Union Bay, and Courtenay and it inflicted damage in Comox, Port Alberni, and Powell River. Bricks and chimneys were shaken down in Victoria. Remarkably only two deaths were recorded, one due to drowning when a small boat capsized in an earthquake-generated wave, and the other from a heart attack in Seattle.

In 1973, I spoke to a neighbourhood couple who were eye witnesses…

“My boyfriend (and future husband) were 19 years old at the time and working on a farm near Cumberland. We had just wrapped up some morning chores when the ground started moving back and forth and then up and down. My first instinct was to drop to the ground. It was difficult to stand. The ground (and we could see a mile or so in every direction…) was undulating like a Northwest wind pushing waves on a lake. In a minute, maybe two, the worse was over…”

No one, ever, forgets the sensations, sounds and smells following or during a calamity. Earthquakes have that unique ability to wipe away everything we believe in and rely on in the World around us.

My personal experiences with ground shaking have been largely limited to Richter scale 6 temblors on Vancouver Island and in the Hawaiian Islands (during volcanic activity…) – and without exception, these were amongst the most frightening physical experiences of my life.

In Gregor Craigie’s debut book, “On Borrowed Time”, he takes us on an unrelenting journey through the physics and geology, topology and psychology of the earthquake. From San Francisco (1906 and 1989), Christchurch (2011), Alaska (1964), Indonesia (2004) and Japan (2011) and more.

Christchurch, New Zealand, a city that eerily matches Victoria, B.C. in layout, architecture and seismic vulnerability, takes centre stage…

The quake struck in the noon hour, when many office workers in Christchurch’s central business district were out looking for lunch. As earthquakes go, the February 2011 temblor was a relatively moderate magnitude-6.3 event, but that number hid the true terror. Accelerometers near the epicentre measured the peak ground acceleration at more than 2g, or twice the force of gravity. That’s roughly four times the peak ground force acceleration recorded in the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti and roughly twenty times stronger than the force a passenger in a typical commercial airliner might feel during takeoff.

Gregor’s tireless research, natural curiosity, and experiences with calamity help shape this masterclass in the consequences of deferring the necessary improvements to infrastructure – action that will, without any doubt, save lives and bring peace of mind to residents of seismically active regions.

A decade in the works, Gregor interviewed scientists, engineers, researchers, disaster victims, civic leaders and city planners on the peril that faces over 100 million citizens in North America alone.

On Borrowed Time is not a breezy read. It is an exhausting and sobering treatise on the very nature of the Earth beneath our feet and the peril of neglecting the individual and collective community preparedness that must take place – if not now, then soon. In example after example (The Christchurch, New Zealand versus Victoria B.C. Canada comparisons for instance…) Gregor reminds us West Coast residents, “You see that place over there? Well, that could be just as easily here…”

The overarching point of Gregor’s work is: “Don’t lose hope or live in fear. Be prepared and take steps for you, your family and community. Earthquakes are inevitable. Staggering loss of life is not.

On Borrowed Time is a runaway train that has to be ridden to the end of the line. My impression after two thoughtful reads is that this is a book that you are not going to want to read – it is a book that you must read – It’s a book that belongs in every school, in every workplace… on shelves that are well secured to the wall. On Borrowed Time is available at all book stores and online.

Colin Newell is a life long resident of Victoria, on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia.