On Borrowed Time: Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people, warns author

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) – Gregor Craigie has been fascinated with earthquakes and seismic activity for decades, but it was a personal tragedy that inspired him to write On Borrowed Time: North America’s Next Big Quake, his first book.

“One of the people who convinced me to write this book was my sister,” he explains. “We, both as kids in our family of four, were in this car crash which was fatal. My dad was seriously injured. He was then in a coma for three weeks and he died three weeks after the car crash.”

Years later, his sister went on to live in Mexico City around the time of a major earthquake.

“I said to her, ‘You know, I can’t imagine what that’s like.’ And she said, ‘Oh no, you can imagine.’ She said people who haven’t lived through an earthquake generally can’t, but she said it was in many ways, it’s just like the car crash. I mean, it came out of nowhere, there was no warning, and it basically upended our lives forever.”

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Craigie is a long-time journalist whose resume includes stints with CBS Radio, the BBC, and (these days) the CBC. But one of his first jobs was right here at NEWS 1130.

“I was only there for a year,” he admits. “It was August ’97 because it was right before Princess Di’s crash. So, 24 years ago now.”

“[NEWS 1130] was a good school in life, every half hour reporting. It’s probably the best training I’ve ever had in writing.”

Craigie says years of reporting in Vancouver and Victoria sparked his interest in earthquakes.

“Like a lot of journalists in Vancouver and Victoria, I’ve talked a lot about earthquakes, and I interviewed a lot of people about earthquakes. But at some point, I became obsessed, to be honest, and a little bit worried as well,” he says. “I had young kids and we were facing the decision about where to send them to school as we looked at some of the old brick schools here in Victoria where they might go to that I learned had not been seismically retrofitted.”

On Borrowed Time is the culmination of decades of interviews and research and about four and a half years of actual writing. What sets it apart is Craigie not only speaks with seismologists and oceanographers, but actual survivors.

“Everyone that I’ve talked to who has lived through something like that, they’ve all said, ‘You just didn’t see it coming and there was no terror like it in the world. You are completely powerless.’ And they all said to me, ‘Unless you’ve lived through it yourself, you can’t really imagine.”

Craigie outlines the danger posed not only on here the West Coast, but all over the continent.

“Eastern North America, safe to say, is not as much at risk, in general, as we are, but when you look at places like New York City, they’re not far behind.”

Craigie figures most people don’t give a second thought to earthquakes and many of us don’t go beyond setting aside a few supplies in the basement.

“I think we need to convince more of us who live in places like Victoria and Vancouver that we need to do more than [just] the earthquake kit.”

Craigie certainly has. He spoke to me just as he was about to perform some seismic upgrades on his own home. He says a good place to start is getting to know the spaces where you spend most of your time, be it your home, your office, or your school.

“There’s a good chance that the really big one won’t happen in our lives, but there’s still a decent chance it could happen at least we or our kids are alive. So, we need to start planning now.”

Craigie admits it may take a severe seismic event for us to take the threat seriously, what experts call Crisis Response Mentality.

“I hope that we’ll realize that it’s, as psychologist Robert Gifford says to me in the book, ‘You can’t stop the earthquake from happening [but] you can stop the earthquake from killing you.'”

And while Craigie isn’t aiming to frighten people, he does hope to spur the reader to act.

“That’s what I’ve been hearing from friends and family who’ve been reading the book,” he says. “A number of them have been scared from some of the vivid descriptions I have from earthquake survivors about buildings collapsing and so on. But the truth is, we probably should be a bit scared, so I hope that no one panics, but I hope that people will read this and have their eyes opened wide.”

On Borrowed Time: North America’s Next Big Quake is available from Goose Lane Editions.

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