Be prepared. Remember to check on neighbours. Know who’s in charge.
These are some of the watchwords given a big crowd of Cowichan Lake residents during a meeting about emergency preparedness last week.
Organized by the Lake Cowichan Chamber of Commerce, and emceed by Country Grocer’s Jenn Pollner, the session featured a panel of representatives from a galaxy of concerned agencies.
The first step, Pollner said, was to form a volunteer task force to figure out what needed to be done locally and then get on to doing it.
Members of the panel included BC Hydro’s Ted Olynyk and Perry Bracken, CVRD’s emergency guru Sybille Sanderson, BC Ambulance paramedic unit chief Jay Morton, Lake Cowichan Fire Chief Doug Knott, Cowichan Valley School District’s Munroe Grobe, Cowichan Lake Community Services’ Carol Blatchford, Town of Lake Cowichan’s Carolyne Austin, and Ts’uubaa-asatx First Nation administrator Aaron Hamilton plus Ginny Saboe of the Lake Cowichan 50+ Activity Centre, Terry Hale of the Lake Cowichan Christian Fellowship, and Julia Martinson of Youbou Community Association.
Sanderson said the recent windstorm and its follow-up could more closely be compared to an earthquake because of the widespread damage and the need to deal with it in place rather than look at evacuation.
The audience then watched a film which showed some of the grim results that can result from earthquakes and what communities need to do to try to get ready for “the big one”.
Sanderson then explained that there are limitations to what the regional district’s emergency response team can do.
“In this situation, we had about 90 per cent of the region without power. This is not the kind of event where everyone is going to come to your rescue. If you can’t get out, then we can’t get in,” she said.
BC Hydro’s Olynyk agreed.
“Our crews are dedicated but you must be prepared to be on your own,” he said.
Hamilton was the first of many to voice the need for a list of necessary phone numbers and addresses, and reminded the crowd that the band may have contacts that are not always easily accessible to other agencies.
“We really want to be part of the solution going forward. It’s important to know who the key people are,” he said.
Knott said that he contacted the CVRD emergency team after 48 hours because the fire department, which had been offering oxygen supplies to help people in need, had run out, and reminded the crowd that the fire department is not in a position to deal with disasters generally.
“The only thing we can prepare for is wild land fires,” he said.
Grobe told the meeting that he had heard from Lake Cowichan School principal, Jaime Doyle, asking that the school be opened as a warming centre since it was well equipped.
“We hosted 55-plus people the first day. It was a great event from our perspective. The board of education said it would do it again,” he said.
Hale said his congregation has three people with generators who went around to help people get warm or save their food.
Blatchford and her crew were putting together 200 Christmas hampers for distribution the day the power went out and were worried because their clients are vulnerable people who are more likely to be living in housing with insufficient insulation and would not have generators.
Community Services also found themselves with a bus full of young people when Youbou Road was closed.
“They said they could walk home, but I said: not in my lifetime. Safety’s first,” she said. The kids stayed.
“I was able to say to my board of directors: We’re not ready!”
Austin suggested that people should get to know their neighbours, and check up on them. She also said it might be a good idea to purchase a generator for the community hall since it had big gas stoves in the kitchen, and could be a useful gathering place.
Saboe said the activity centre, which is right by the post office, is a useful facility, the group is going to look at getting a generator but also suggested that making up a list of single seniors who do not drive would be a good idea.
Martinson said that in Youbou, which was totally cut off for some time, there were “lots of heartwarming stories” from the emergency and added that work is underway to resurrect the community’s moribund emergency preparedness committee.
Once the meeting was opened to questions from the audience, the first one to come up was an age-old query: can hydro lines go underground.
Olynyk said that BC Hydro’s mandate was for an “overhead” service and then handed the mic to Bracken who had more details for the crowd.
With 30 kilometres of line to bury, the cost would be prohibitive and nobody would want to pay it, he said, explaining that massive drilling through Vancouver Island’s rocky terrain would be needed because the cables have to be encased in concrete if they are going underground.
Bracken then said the work would cost between $5,000 and $25,000 a foot, which drew gasps from the audience.
Other questions included: who decides if we need a shelter, and when to open it? How do we let people know about a warming station? What happens if the bridges are not available in town?
Sanderson said she was thrilled to see such a lot of organizations all in one room together.
“In the past years we have designated well over 20 centres but not a lot of thought has been given to what happens if you can’t really go anywhere,” she said.
Austin said that Knott had just suggested to her that the town should look at a cold weather bylaw.
CVRD chair Ian Morrison, who arrived late because of a previous meeting, said organizing was great but “you still need the volunteers who are going to be there. However, there’s a lot of volunteer burnout out there. We need the whole community to step up.”
Area I director Klaus Kuhn said that “local directors are going to have to be involved more,” adding that he had checked trailer parks in his area but found that efforts were already underway.
Pollner said a lot of people stopped in at her store, asking where they could volunteer.
A man stepped up to the microphone and said, “You shouldn’t have to be told. You should already know where you have to go, so you don’t have to wait for a message.”
He suggested that newcomers to town be given instructions about this when they move to the area.
An animal owner said that plans must include what to do with pets, and many in the audience agreed.
Finally, a man stepped up to the mic and thanked the panel “for not sugar coating” the situation and said that the community at the Lake must get together to be ready for that first 72-86 hours and not expect anyone else to carry the load.
Pollner said that had been the whole point of the meeting, and urged everyone, before they went home, to sign up for the task force, and get information from the tables at the back of the hall.