The severe weekend storm that wreaked havoc in southwestern B.C. and Washington state, knocking out power for about a million people, is a sharp reminder that emergency preparedness isn’t about some remote possibility in the distant future. It’s about the here and now.
More than 500,000 B.C. Hydro customers were left without electricity when the storm hit Saturday; about the same number were left in the dark in Washington state. Repair crews worked around the clock on both sides of the border, but about 100,000 people in B.C. and Washington were still without power Monday.
Trees were uprooted; cars and homes were damaged. In the Seattle area, two people were killed by falling trees — a 10-year-old girl and a 36-year-old man. In Surrey, a woman trying to warn motorists and pedestrians of the impending danger was critically injured when a tree fell on her.
While the storm would have been destructive in any season, it came at a time when deciduous trees still have all their leaves, producing a “sail effect.” In addition, this summer’s drought has weakened many trees that might otherwise have withstood the storm.
While the worst storm in years was lashing the Lower Mainland, Naomi Yamamoto, the B.C. minister of state responsible for emergency preparedness, was tweeting: “Fabulous wknd @LongBeachLodge thx to @Chef_IanRiddick, great surf and fab food!”
We agree with Yamamoto about enjoying the delights of the Tofino-Ucluelet area and we’re glad she chose to relax on Vancouver Island’s west coast, but we wonder at her timing. It’s not as if the storm was a surprise — meteorologists had predicted a serious storm several days before, and Environment Canada issued wind warnings Saturday for Greater Victoria, Metro Vancouver, the Southern Gulf Islands and the Sunshine Coast.
People tend to shrug off such warnings, though, thinking it won’t be so bad. Often it isn’t; the Island got only a taste of what the Lower Mainland experienced, but we should still be prepared.
While utility crews in B.C. and Washington went quickly to work, they were focused on restoring power to whole sectors. Restoring power to neighbourhoods and individual homes is not a priority under those circumstances.
In Yamamoto’s defence, she was on the job Monday sending out messages about, among other things, the need for 72-hour emergency kits. That brings home the point that we need to be self-reliant for the first few days after a disaster, natural or otherwise. Governments and first responders are going to be too busy dealing with the big picture to come to the rescue of individuals here and there.
Preparing for those first few days is not onerous: sufficient water, food, medications and other supplies (don’t forget a sturdy pair of shoes) for two or three days; some cash on hand; and plans for contacting friends and family.
Vancouver Island got off lightly — this time. But this region has many vulnerabilities. The storm’s winds temporarily disrupted ferry service, which brings most of our food to the Island. Three collisions in 36 hours on the weekend closed the Malahat, severely restricting traffic between the capital region and the rest of the Island. Scrap cars accidentally dumped into the harbour remind us of the potential for marine disasters.
When it comes to emergency preparedness, much attention is focused on the Big One, the mega-quake given a one-in-three chance of striking the West Coast in the next 50 years. But the weekend storm was a not-so-gentle reminder that nature has other surprises in store for us, and we should not let the congenial climate lull us into complacency.