By Keith Norbury

Southwestern B.C. is due for a mega-thrust earthquake like the one that struck the region in 1700 and cast a tsunami onto the shores of Japan. When that inevitable disaster strikes, B.C. ports don’t want to end up like the port at Kobe, Japan, which still hasn’t regained its former stature nearly two decades after a 1995 earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people. Rebuilding after a major disaster and restoring port services means planning for that event long before it happens, according to panelists at a business session at the annual Association of Canadian Port Authorities conference this past summer in Nanaimo.

Those measures range from simple precautions, such as not relying on “Joe at the Marina” for fuel for an emergency generator, to complex measures like pre-planning among competing ports, even across the Canada-U.S. border, to share resources and expertise should disaster strike. “As you know, our ports are very competitive. Even within the Puget Sound area, where I come from, they are constantly stealing business from each other,” Matt Morrison, CEO of Pacific Northwest Economic Region, said during his presentation as part of the business session on maritime commerce resumption and emergency response. The competition becomes even more heated across the border, he said. However, Puget Sound ports such as Seattle and Tacoma, as well as coastal B.C. ports like Vancouver, Nanaimo and Prince Rupert, share common vulnerabilities, he said. Not the least of these is the threat of a massive earthquake.

Cascadia region overdue for major quake

The region straddles the Cascadia subduction earthquake zone, where a major megathrust earthquake typically happens every 300 years. The most recent of these occurred Jan. 26, 1700. Geologists have pinpointed that date from written records in Japan of a tsunami that swept across the Pacific Ocean. “So we’re due for one,” Mr. Morrison said. “And when that happens it’ll affect all of us.”

About a year ago Transport Canada and the U.S. Coast Guard tasked his organization — which encompasses the three western provinces, two western Canadian territories, and five U.S. states — with leading an “initiative on commerce resumption and developing a methodology to enhance our ability to recover after a disaster.” That initiative was part of the Beyond the Beyond agreement that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama announced to fanfare in February 2011.

In developing the methodologies, Mr. Morrison’s organization has taken cues from the response to hurricane Sandy, which pummeled the northeast U.S. coast in late 2012. “In super storm Sandy what we saw was there was an inability of the private sector to get accurate information in a timely manner about which ports were up, down, (and) what kind of infrastructure they had available to them,” Mr. Morrison said.

Mr. Morrison’s organization has already conducted several workshops in Vancouver, Everett, and Seattle that have focused on six main areas:

• a protocol framework;

• sharing communication capabilities;

• situational awareness requirements;

• looking at interdependencies;

• an action plan roadmap; and

• a three year timeline.

Out of those workshops came a report, which can be found online at, and which presents 24 prioritized action items. “When a disaster happens, we need to be prepared to assist one another,” Mr. Morrison said. “That doesn’t happen without preplanning, without exercising, without training. And it’s never a one-shot deal.”

As a result of his organization’s work, state and provincial governments are beginning to recognize that they “can’t survive without maritime business,” Mr. Morrison said. The hope is to develop a framework to be signed by the Premier of B.C. and the Governor of Washington state. Similar efforts are moving toward the Great Lakes and the Atlantic seaboard as well, Mr. Morrison said.

Resistance still needs to be overcome, however. In dealing with one Puget Sound port, which he didn’t identify, he encountered an emergency manager who expressed the following philosophy: “First of all, if something bad happens, it won’t happen here; second, if something bad does happen here, it won’t be that bad; third, if it is that bad, well, there was nothing we could have done about it anyway,” Mr. Morrison said to laughter from the approximately 100 attendees at the ACPA session.

Nobody wants to be Canada’s Kobe

The repercussions of such lax preparation were outlined in a cautionary tale from Allan Bartley, Director of Marine Security policy for Transport Canada. He cited the experience of Kobe, Japan, calling it a “poster child of how not to do recovery planning in a port scenario.” Before that 1995 quake, Kobe had the sixth most active container port in the world, Mr. Bartley said. “Twenty-six months later, the port facilities had been largely reconstructed along with some parts of the city, and there was a slight revival of revenue traffic to the port,” he said. “And then there was a long, slow decline in the port.” It now ranks in the 30s among container ports, he said. (The World Shipping Council ranks Hanshin support, which includes Kobe, as the world’s 28th busiest container port.) Kobe did not regain its previous standing after the disaster because of a lack of coordination among all the various parts of the port’s supply chain, he said. “Nobody wants to be the Kobe of Canada,” Mr. Bartley said.

After damage to the port was repaired, terminals and other operators were ready to resume business. However, the railways weren’t yet running properly and surface transportation in general “wasn’t operating particularly well,” Mr. Bartley said. In fact, supply chains in that part of Japan still suffered significant disruption. “So, notwithstanding the best will and effort in the world, if there is no coordinated and concerted thought about how recovery will be done you may be standing there waiting for customers who will never come,” Mr. Bartley said.

In the past five or six years, Canada has done some resilience planning, he said, inspired by an earlier initiative between Canada and the U.S. called the Security Cross Border Partnership.

One of the drivers on the U.S. side was the passage in 2006 of the Safe Port Act, which required the U.S. Coast Guard to put in place maritime transportation system recovery units in its districts. Canada decided it had to take a different approach, Mr. Bartley said. That approach involved pilot projects for core ports to introduce the idea of Marine Commerce Resumption, or MCR, and working with port authorities and terminal owners and operators “to think about how recovery planning would be done.” To that end, Transport Canada has been working on MCR with the ports of Vancouver, Halifax, Montreal, and Hamilton. One output of that effort was a toolkit, which he handed out on thumb drives at the conference.

“MCR is not about building something new. It’s about adding on to what’s already in existence,” Mr. Bartley said. “And for us that was an important consideration because in this country, emergency response is led primarily by the provinces, and we wanted to be able to fit into that.” Transport Canada also decided to make MCR a voluntary effort, and appeal to industry to subscribe to it because it makes “good common business sense,” Mr. Bartley said.

Best practices revealed

Pat Docking, an engineering technician and consultant, distilled lessons learned from eighty organizations across Canada into ten best practices for maritime commerce resumption. Panel moderator Capt. Ed Dahlgren, Nanaimo’s harbour master and Manager of Marine Operations, expanded on them later and offered examples of how Nanaimo Port Authority is putting them into action.

Those best practices are as follows:

1. Identify your organization’s critical infrastructure and assets and their key dependencies.

2. Review and strengthen back-up strategies for all those key dependencies.

3. Determine how critical your organization is to economic and public wellbeing — locally, regionally, and nationally — and communicate your vital needs and capabilities and resources to decision makers.

4. Identity and assess the capacity and capability of key maritime commerce stakeholders and supply chain operators.

5. Learn the priorities, plans, expectations, and decision-making mechanisms of governments, service providers, and key suppliers; and adjust strategies accordingly.

6. Build redundancy and resilience into your supply chain; and identify and address single points of failure.

7. Leverage the natural leadership role of the port authorities.

8. Create pre-need relationships, such as by leading or promoting the establishment of multi-agency or multi-jurisdictional plans, strategies, and networks, to address common issues and goals.

9. Develop multi-jurisdictional coordination models and communication protocols to include government, industry, service providers, and suppliers.

10. Exercise recovery scenarios that last months or years; and engage others outside the immediate marine community — such as utilities, other ports, and rail and road operators — in those exercises.

Beware of ordinary Joes

Ms. Docking noted that Public Safety Canada has ten critical infrastructure categories that help to identify key infrastructure. However, she also advised identifying key personnel, such as engineers, who know the locations of cables and shut-off valves, but often store that critical information only in their heads. “Well, that is a real vulnerability,” she said.

Port officials might think that the gantry cranes rank highly as key infrastructure only to discover that the computer system needed to operate those cranes ranks even higher. “And computer systems rely upon electricity and also on water for cooling the systems. But you may not have looked at it that way,” Ms. Docking said. In her career, Docking has undertaken more than thirty critical assessments. In all but one case, she said, “there was an ‘Oh my God’ moment.”

On best practice No. 2, key dependencies, Ms. Docking noted that electricity is almost always a major concern. Yet she encountered organizations with no electrical backup strategies and others that relied on generators. And for fuel, they’d further rely on “Joe down at the marina,” she said. “Well, if there is a major disaster you should know that it’s not Joe down at the marina who is going to make those decisions.” The lesson there was clear: find out who makes those decisions, hammer out agreements, and get on the radar of those decision makers.

A disaster doesn’t hit just one organization

On best practice No. 3, it’s important that ports articulate to local, regional and national decision makers the importance of a functioning port to economic wellbeing, she said. “Also if there was a major disaster in your port, how would you prioritize where you would go to do inspections, debris removal, road repairs, etc.?”

On item No. 4, it’s important to identify the capacity and capability of key marine commerce stakeholders and suppliers. For example, she found that multiple organizations were relying on a single fuel supplier, who sounded just like Joe at the marina. “When we dug into that, the fuel delivery company was in fact one guy and he was servicing 500 clients,” Ms. Docking said.

She found a similar situation with security firms. In a disaster, security systems can become compromised. Yet many businesses and organizations, including banks, are relying on the same security company for help. “A disaster doesn’t always hit just one organization. It’s a whole area,” Ms. Docking said.

For that reason, item 5 underscores the importance of learning the priorities, plans and strategies of other agencies and key suppliers. To that end, maritime commerce resumption and resilience committees have been a great benefit, she said.

A B.C. Hydro presentation, for example, set off lightbulbs “all over the room” when Hydro revealed that its priority would be to restore power to its biggest clients, such as McDonald’s restaurants, even before providing power to the port.

“You might have to adjust your plans. So don’t make assumptions,” Ms. Docking said.

Number 6, building redundancies, addresses the folly of allowing single points of failure. One large organization, for example, admitted it would be out of business within about six hours were a key supplier not be able to deliver. “So I went to that supplier and did a critical assessment on them, and found that they were extremely vulnerable,” Ms. Docking said. For one thing, that supplier relied on electricity but couldn’t afford a backup generator. For another, it “had a proprietary computer system that was kind of patched together and only one guy in the organization knew how to fix it.” The larger organization, which depended on the smaller one, could have rectified those problems “for a minuscule amount of money,” Ms. Docking said. “But they had never spoken about this with their key suppliers.”

Be a leader and foster relationships

On point number 7, the port simply needs to leverage its leadership role. “And let’s face it: if there is a major disaster, a lot of the recovery and response effort is going to come by sea,” Ms. Docking said. “So better get into the game now and help influence how that rolls out.” And to do that, ports need to foster the necessary relationships before the needs arise. “If you’re in the middle of a disaster at 2 a.m. you want to know who is on the other end of the phone, whether they’re calling you or vice-versa,” Ms. Docking said. Similarly, advance planning is crucial to point 9, the development of multi-jurisdictional coordinator models and communication protocols.

And finally, item 10, coordinating those plans with other organizations must emphasize that the recovery might take months or years. “This seems to be a really difficult paradigm to break,” Ms. Docking said.

Fewer organizations than she expected even had business continuity plans. And those that did failed to share them with the ports. In one case, a business continuity plan had identified a community centre as a staging area and alternative work site even though “the community centre had been ripped down about two years before that.”

In another case, Docking attended a round table discussion where one organization said it planned to use the community centre as an emergency resource only to be told by another participant, “I’m the coroner and that’s my temporary morgue.” On the plus side, Ms. Docking said, implementing the ten best practices doesn’t have to consume a lot of time and resources. She said it took Port Metro Vancouver only a couple of weeks of meetings, brainstorming, and critical thinking to build those practices into its existing plans. “You don’t need to have a plan called MCR,” Ms. Docking said. “You just build it into your emergency management plan and your other plans so that when you exercise those plans you just add on a bit more in terms of recovery.”

Simple sailor creates response blueprint

Capt. Dahlgren said that “being a simple sailor,” he took Ms. Docking’s ten ideas and made them his “blueprint for response planning.” For example, he identified that Nanaimo’s container handling equipment “is going to be crucial because Vancouver Island will die without access to a port.” That’s because the island relies on a just-in-time delivery system of ferries and trucks to take goods directly to stores. “Three days of food exist, two days of blood, less than one week of fuel,” he said. “Everything has to come by port and we have to be in position to deal with it quickly. So we’ve got to harden our ability to off-load barges.”

To address point 3, communicating vital needs, the port has implemented a strike team that includes a cruiser, fire engine, and municipal crane truck and plough that can be deployed to deal with the likes of a bridge being knocked down. And when it comes to showing leadership in planning — item 7 — the port worked with B.C. Ferries, Seaspan, and the RCMP to close the harbour during a recent demonstration of the Snowbirds aerial team. That included fully crewing the port’s emergency vessels in the unlikely event of an incident.

In introducing the panel session, Capt. Dahlgren said his motivation for promoting marine emergency response was to help others avoid a misfortune he experienced earlier in his career. He explained in a brief interview later that the tragedy was the sinking of M/V Queen of the North in March 2006 that claimed the lives of two passengers. At the time, Capt. Dahlgren was the main superintendent for B.C. Ferries’ north coast region. “We had very good contingency plans around events,” Capt. Dahlgren explained. “But we did not have a long-term service and rescue plan which reflected the communities we served, and it affected the company.”

Former mayor recalls the last big wave

After Capt. Dahlgren finished, Ken McRae, a Director of Port Alberni Port Authority, talked about his experience in responding to a tsunami that flooded the Alberni Canal on the west coast of Vancouver Island in the wake of the 1964 Alaska earthquake. Mr. McRae, who later served four terms as Port Alberni’s mayor, was working as a maintenance operator at a pulp mill when the tsunami struck in the wee hours of the morning. “We had chlorine gas that we were making and every chemical known to man and I had to shut down most of these big pumps,” Mr. McRae recalled. “We didn’t actually know what was happening, that there was a tidal wave taking place. So it was a really scary event.” However, he said Port Alberni quickly recovered and the mill was back in operation within a week. He praised B.C.’s premier of the day, W.A.C. Bennett, for commandeering a ferry to bring in army troops from a base in Chilliwack to help clear logs and other debris. But with that army unit long since relocated to Alberta, Mr. McRae wondered how quickly the army might respond to a similar disaster today.

Capt. Dahlgren said national policy is beyond his purview as harbour master. However, he assured Mr. McRae that the port has good relationships with army reserves on the island and that emergency stores are located throughout the province “that are available to communities to be released under federal mandate.”