“Did you feel the earthquake the other day?”
I can’t count the number of times someone’s asked me that question. Sometimes the answer is yes, but more often than not my response is “Earthquake? What earthquake?” And usually this reaction is accompanied by a sense of, well, disappointment, as though I’ve missed out on a party or something fun.
Earthquakes are no party. Earthquakes are not fun. And yet I couldn’t suppress a sense of excitement last Thursday as I made my way down to the Island Savings Centre parking lot to try out the Quake Cottage earthquake simulator.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I imagined entering a mock living room, closing the door behind me and basically being shaken like a can of spray paint. I envisioned myself dropping to the floor, furniture rumbling and shifting about, picture frames (plastic, not glass) falling from the walls. I wondered how long the simulator would be activated. Three minutes? Five minutes?
It turned out my expectations were a little unrealistic.
The Quake Cottage was like a miniature boxcar mounted on a special trailer. There were three chairs affixed to the floor on one end of the room facing a kitchen-style counter with some items bolted to its surface. There was a TV screen on the wall above the counter. The sliding side doors remained open at all times.
I took my seat along with two other participants. Sitting down was mandatory but the handles beside each seat were optional. An operator standing outside flipped a switch and the machine came to life, lurching and bucking back and forth. I scrambled to pull out my phone and record a video.
All around us were the sounds of glass breaking, people screaming and violent rumblings and crashing noises.
The motion felt like a cross between a mechanical bull and a rocking horse.
And then suddenly it was over.
We disembarked. I found out, to my surprise, the machine had only been running for 30 seconds. I also found out, I’m embarrassed to admit, I was once again feeling a sense of disappointment. I’d expected something like an earthquake simulator to scare me straight, to shake me (no pun intended) from my complacency about earthquakes, but instead it was kind of fun.
I asked Karen Hallquist, a mother who visited the Quake Cottage with her young daughter, Lily, what they thought of it.
“Lily was comparing it to Disneyland rides,” said Hallquist. “Was it as scary as the Tower of Terror?”
Lily shook her head “no.”
Hallquist said she was surprised by how loud the sound effects were. She said she’s felt a few small quakes here on the west coast, but nothing big. She said Lily had a smile on her face during the simulation.
“It was kind of fun for her,” said Hallquist.
But that’s not the goal of the Quake Cottage.
“I’m hoping this is going to show people is this isn’t just something to play around with,” said Sybille Sanderson, the CVRD’s emergency program coordinator. “If people get a chance to see how significant [a magnitude] eight is hopefully they’ll get the sense that ‘No, I’m not going to be able to run somewhere. I’m not going to be able to do something.’”
Sanderson said the opportunity to bring the Quake Cottage to Duncan opened up a space for a very important discussion about safety and emergency preparedness.
“The key thing though is we want people to have grab-and-go kits because you don’t know where you’re going to be when something happens,” she said. “We want people to secure their home furnishings and things like that because the thing is you want to make your home as safe as possible. So that you’re not going to get injured by the stuff falling on you.
Being prepared for an earthquake, particularly having a kit with emergency supplies (including two weeks worth of any necessary medications), also means people will be prepared for other situations like a wild fire or flood evacuation, said Sanderson.
Within the first hour of opening the Quake Cottage, a long line had already formed.
“I’m absolutely thrilled we’re getting this kind of response,” said Sanderson.
The Quake Cottage, which is based in San Diego, was in the middle of touring British Columbia with the goal of raising awareness about earthquakes. Its trip was funded in large part by the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
Sean Ferry, safety manager with the Quake Cottage, explained the machine is designed to replicate the force at which the earth moves during an earthquake. The Quake Cottage’s back and forth motion represents a ground acceleration rate of between 1.25 and 1.5, which might not sound like much until you consider the largest ever recorded is 2.0.
Ferry said most people are surprised the experience only lasts 30 seconds and report that it felt longer. He said running the machine for longer periods builds up the momentum and risks damaging the equipment or injuring participants.
“What we really hope is people go home and they get a feel for exactly what happens [in a quake],” he said. “We don’t want you to live in fear. We want you to live prepared.”
I think the CVRD’s decision to host the Quake Cottage was a smart move. It doesn’t matter that for most people it probably felt more like a carnival ride than an educational tool because it opened up a conversation about earthquake preparation.
For me, it was an eye-opening experience, not because I stepped out of the “cottage” feeling as though I’d just survived a magnitude-eight earthquake, but rather because it made me realize just how desensitized I am to the prospect of a seismic catastrophe. I don’t know if this is due to natural disaster movies or rides at Disneyland, but the prospect of a big earthquake hasn’t scared me into properly preparing for one. And that’s scary.