On Borrowed Time: North America’s Next Big Quake by Gregor Craigie

Living on the West Coast as I do means it’s impossible to put thoughts of earthquakes completely out of mind. I suppose, ever since long ago reading Edgar Cayce’s prediction of the Western shelf falling into the sea, I’ve been a little nervous. But according to information in the new book from Gregor Craigie, a certain amount of edginess seems justified.

Craigie is a journalist and broadcaster who’s worked for outlets as varied as the BBC, CBS Radio, and Public Radio International. Currently the host of CBC’s On the Island, Victoria’s early morning radio program, he’s had years of experience interviewing people and asking hard questions – experience that’s evidenced throughout this information-packed book.

He reports on earthquakes and tsunamis that have occurred around the world, placing an emphasis on seismic action in North America, including places I’d never dreamed had experienced quakes – the Mississippi Valley, South Carolina, Utah, New York – and then offers cautions for our own Quebec City, Ottawa, and of course, Vancouver and Victoria.

“The study of earthquakes has a language of its own, but Craigie serves as a fluent interpreter.”

His research is extensive, and he puts it to good use but does so without befuddling the reader. Never talking down to us, he offers clear definitions of technical terminology, making us comfortable with his references to temblors, subduction zones, turbidites, asthenosphere. The study of earthquakes has a language of its own, but Craigie serves as a fluent interpreter.

And the book offers much more than technical information; personal accounts, journals, old news articles, even diaries illustrate all too clearly the threats posed by shifts in the earth beneath us. Some of these stories are heartbreaking. He cites as an example survivors of the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch who were able, for a time, to communicate with family, but then during rescue efforts, died. Other of these accounts are even more hopeless, the worst of these, of the young woman in Colombia, buried to her neck in solid debris who lived, mostly entombed, for sixty hours before succumbing. These are the most haunting, the “…cases [where] rescuers could only offer some food and medicine or pray with the victims before they died.”

But Craigie’s purpose in writing this book is not to paralyze us, but to bring us – and our governments – to action, as there are ways we can protect ourselves. Many older buildings, especially those built of bricks, are vulnerable and can not only collapse inward but will often shed chunks of their outer walls onto anyone below. A number of after-the-fact fixes now exist, though of course, they don’t come without costs, many of them high. Yet how does one justify cutting corners in building costs or repairs when comparing those to the cost of losing human lives.

It is in these explanations of the many techniques and technologies that have been developed that hope shines. And it is for this reason, I believe, that the Writers’ Trust of Canada has selected Craigie’s book as a finalist for this year’s inaugural Balsillie Prize for Public Policy. On Borrowed Time illustrates clearly that indeed, it is only a matter of time until the earth shakes again. For now, we can only hope that making preparations will make a difference to survival rates, and also to the inevitable rebuilding and restoration of services that will be required.

While I’ve experienced a few tremors over the years (the strongest of which made me feel like I was surfing a small wave, even though the flooring I stood on had concrete immediately beneath it), I do manage to sleep at night. Maybe that’s partly because I’ve made a number of preparations – I have an emergency kit, know how to shut off the gas line, and keep an extra pair of shoes under the bed. Small steps, but a start – at least I hope so. Reading this book is bound to convince readers to at least take similar precautions because as Craigie reminds us, more such events are inevitable. In the words of one of the experts, he cites: “You can’t stop the earthquake from happening. You can stop the earthquake from killing you.”

Gregor Craigie has been a news producer, reporter, and on-air host. He is presently the host of CBC’s On the Island in Victoria, BC. He is a former reporter for CBS Radio and a former BBC journalist, who read the news to millions of American listeners of The World on Public Radio International.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Goose Lane Editions (Sept. 28 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 248 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773102060
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773102061

 -- Website

Heidi Greco lives and writes in Surrey, BC on the territory of the Semiahmoo Nation and land that remembers the now-extinct Nicomekl People. Her most recent book, Glorious Birds (from Vancouver's Anvil Press) is an extended homage to one of her favourite films, Harold and Maude, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021. More info at her website, heidigreco.ca

(Photo credit: George Omorean)