The "Big One"

By Gene Miller, April 2011

Predictions and recommendations in light of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and near nuclear meltdown.

With a kid’s Christmas morning-like excitement, I woke at 4:30 one Saturday a couple of weeks ago in a fever of frightened anticipation about Japan’s efforts to cool the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and prevent a full-scale nuclear meltdown and the end of the world. That day, the New York Times carried an uncharitable story that Japanese authorities had now detected increased radiation levels in certain foods (milk and spinach, go figure), and a government spokesman, Mr. Edano, was quoted saying “these levels do not pose an immediate threat to your health,” adding that the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry would provide citizens with additional details.

Then, as if “do not pose an immediate threat” wasn’t enough to have every sane Japanese paddling away from the country in anything that could float, Mr. Edano followed with the money shot—the three words we all wait for in apocalyptic disaster movies: “Please stay calm.”

The only thing calm and blandly quotidian at that early hour was my email inbox which presented me with a Hobson’s choice of 2nd Chance Chequing, Lasik Eye Surgery, Drug Rehab, Bathroom Remodelling, and notification from Swiss Lotto Netherlands that I had won 850,000 Euros. Last week I won 626,000 Euros, so that’s a total of…oh, you do the math. I’m too busy emailing them my bank account number, PIN and a facsimile signature.

Actually, we on this continent can stay forever calm, regardless of whether Japanese spinach-eating milk-drinkers all grow second noses, because there is an invisible Colgate Toothpaste Gardol Shield around all of North America that blocks atomic radiation. Isn’t that comforting? No glow-in-the-dark wasabi over here, thanks. Just news from a distant land. We were left only to idly wonder if some cluster of tiny wavelets breaking on the shores west of Sooke on the day of the earthquake—hardly enough to disturb the sea wrack and glistening pebbles—was the result of the tsunami, like an ambushed courier arriving more dead than alive, staggering into camp and expiring with a guttural gurgle.

While the local paper has been filled with can-it-happen-here stories and useful earthquake preparedness pieces (One: Start screaming “We’re all gonna die!” Two: Pee in your pants. Three: Run to the nearest underground parkade taking only your cappuccino-maker and your daytimer), the fact is that it won’t happen here. These things—quakes, tsunamis and such—simply aren’t allowed in Victoria without extensive prior written notice, a thorough multi-stakeholder communication and engagement process, or during tea-time. James Bay’s last words before the Big One? “Why weren’t we consul—” Then the lines went dead.

With uncharacteristic forethought and maturity, I trudged up Beacon Hill with my wife (we live beside the park) so the two of us could eyeball our prospects and plan for survival in the face of a catastrophic wave. We figured we could make it from our place to Beacon Hill in about five minutes (longer if we brought the entire contents of our home with us); and yes, we were close to shore in that location, but also about a hundred feet above sea level. We would be safe there given anything short of the wave that flipped the Poseidon, and assuming that ten thousand other panicky people hadn’t hit on exactly the same survival strategy. I took the time to look at a map and satisfy myself that if a tsunami was generated by a sub-ocean quake, much of it would be stopped by the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island, and that any remaining wave energy (L~2.4348/n+/-pi, for those of you who want to work this out on your cell phone keys) would be dissipated by the headlands around Sooke (thank you for your sacrifices, Sooke) and the Ogden Point Breakwater in James Bay (“Why weren’t we consul—”). 

I figure Port Angeles might take it on the chin, but, honestly, have you ever heard “Port Angeles” and any of “You must try the bouillabaisse,” “I’ve never heard the viola da gamba played with more sensitivity and nuance,” or “Let’s stay an extra day so we can hit the rest of the boutiques” used in the same sentence? On the other hand, you can order a hamburger rare/medium-rare in the restaurants, and the waitress doesn’t back away from you and make the sign of the cross if you say you want your burger “red as road kill.” Orlando Gibbons and Marin Marais, or the Lumberjack medium-rare with fried onions and pepper bacon? Hmmmmmm.

So what’s the point? Haultain Street’s going to be the new waterfront, that’s the point. And all those smug lefties clustered on the Roseberry and Avebury slope are going to strut around like they knew they were making brilliant business investments years ago when they first bought. Doesn’t it gall you just thinking about it?

Let’s see, what else can you expect in the aftermath of an 9.0 quake and a tsunami? The Empress Hotel will simply vanish into the two hundred feet of oyster shells and ooze it’s built upon. The downtown commissionaires, like the evil zombie automatons they are, will don scuba gear so they may continue to issue downtown parking tickets until the Great Wheel of Time takes all of this away.

There will be a lot of subsurface liquefaction, and all of Old Town will be reduced to heritage rubble. (Don’t you love that word liquefaction? It’s so…squishy and, well, scary pudding.) Haultain Street’s going to be the—oh, I said that already. You know, I’m not done with those smug lefties. I mean, is there anything more repulsive, more anti-nature, more not-according-to-God’s-plan than a lefty who does that disgusting little victory dance superiority thing because he got lucky at some business undertaking? A facial expression that says: “All suffering has been redeemed. I have triumphed over the Evil Right. I have bested them at their own game and done it while having superior values and believing in a fair wage and urban chickens.” Makes me want to see the proletariat ground under the despot’s heel. Has me rooting for every plutocrat who’s making his millions off the backs of the workers.

Fever’s broken. Thanks for your forbearance.

So, are there lessons here? Of course there are. First, Godzilla is a metaphor, earthquakes and tsunamis are not. They have no symbolic meaning, only geomorphic consequences. Second, there is no escaping your fate. When the great god Tuklaku is tired of human folly… Third, take out a party membership and head for the high ground north of Haultain. 

Gene Miller founded both Open Space Arts Centre and Monday Magazine. More recently, he established the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.