Traditional Knowledge Informs of Japan-Style Earthquake Danger Off U.S., Canada

First Nations oral history from Vancouver Island to the northern California coast tell of a great earthquake and tsunami on the scale of the one that occurred in Japan on March 11, 2011; the next one on the Cascadia subduction zone could be worse than that.

As Japan looks back on the one-year anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that leveled a northern region last March 11, Canada is looking ahead.

Scientists warn that the Pacific Coast could suffer an earthquake and tsunami more devastating than the one that leveled cities in northeastern Japan and sent radiation from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant around the world. And First Nations are listening.

As Postmedia News reports, the village of Anacla on the west coast of Vancouver Island is preparing already. It has rebuilt its meeting house higher up the hill above Pachena Bay and is slowly relocating the 49 houses that are currently on the beach.

The elders have handed down tales of a quake-generated tsunami that washed away an entire village from those shores in 1700, according to Huu-ay-Aht First Nation Hereditary Chief Tom Happynook.

"The village was completely wiped out," he told Postmedia News.

Tales abound among elders up and down the coast about the megaquake and tsunami that hit more than 300 years ago, Postmedia News said, with accounts of canoes being tossed up into trees. Analyses of grown rings in trees that died in that last earthquake were analyzed to arrive at the year as well, according to National Geographic. It was powerful enough to send a tsunami lapping at the shores of Japan.

Such an event is rare on this side of the ocean—so rare, geologist John Clague told Postmedia News, that Canada has been lulled into a false sense of security, which he terms “rare event syndrome.” The U.S. and Canada are not prepared as Japan was, being less accustomed to such events than their Asian counterparts, he explained.

But it is a very real threat, scientists say. It comes from the Cascadia subduction zone, a 680-mile-long fault line that's 50–60 miles offshore, stretching from Northern California past Vancouver Island, in southern British Columbia. A subduction zone is the name given to a region where one tectonic plate is being shoved under another.

Canada is one of half a dozen places that could be hit by the next double whammy, according to National Geographic. The Red Cross, too, is urging Canadians to be prepared.

"The scope of this disaster, especially considering Japan was one of the world's best-prepared countries, was massive," said Conrad Sauvé, secretary general and CEO of the Canadian Red Cross, in a statement on March 9. "We are encouraged by the positive impact Canadian donations have and continue to have in Japan however, the anniversary reminds us of the need for Canadian communities to better prepare for emergencies."

Like other experts, the Red Cross is strongly advising increased education so that people know how to survive after such a disaster and also have ample warning to dodge it if possible.

"The impressive humanitarian response in Japan is the result of considerable investment and planning," said Sauvé. "Greater investment by Canadian individuals, humanitarian organizations and governments is needed to ensure Canada is prepared for a large-scale emergency."

Last year’s tsunami did not spare the Pacific Coast either. A remnant of the Japanese tsunami washed a Yurok descendant out to sea at the mouth of the Klamath River last March.

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Thus the Huu-ay-aht First Nation and others like it are not taking any chances. There have been too many tales from the past for them to do so, and Japan’s lessons from the present cement the deal.

A study published in the journal Seismological Research Letters in March/April 2005 surveyed coastal indigenous legends from Vancouver Island down to northern California and found numerous stories of a shaking earth and the rising of the ocean. Up and down the coast, people perished. Indeed, some ceremonies seem to have grown out of this experience, the study found.