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COLUMN: Storm lessons noteworthy

Most Metro Vancouver residents poorly prepared for disaster.

Surrey was likely the hardest-struck area of all the many parts of B.C. affected by Saturday’s windstorm.

As of Tuesday night, fewer than 2,000 of the 710,000 customers who had lost power as a result of the storm were waiting for restoration of service. Most of them were in Surrey.

On Monday morning, when slightly more than 50,000 customers were waiting for electricity, more than 20,000 of them were in Surrey. There were 137 separate outages in Surrey still awaiting repair at that time, according to BC Hydro’s website.

The outages were not restricted to one area of Surrey, although rural areas and those with many large trees were the hardest-hit. There were outages in Whalley, Newton, Fleetwood, Cloverdale, Ocean Park and Port Kells – among others.

Some only involved five customers, but as of 11 a.m. Monday, the largest single remaining outage in Surrey affected 3,986 customers, with several others affecting more than 3,000 customers each.

It is clear from the reaction to the widespread outage that many people are poorly prepared for a disaster. When there is a large earthquake, as will happen at some point in the future, this outage will seem like a picnic. There will be much more widespread damage in an earthquake, and low-lying areas will almost certainly be affected by a tsunami.

However, has the City of Surrey taken proper precautions to prepare for a major emergency?

The fire department and police seem to have coped reasonably well with the massive number of calls for service. They were helped by the fact that there was minimal effect on their infrastructure from the windstorm.

The two hospitals seem to have coped well. There have been no concerns raised about patients suffering as the result of a lack of supply of electricity, which is vital in any hospital.

Most major roads remained open, although some were shut down because of trees, power lines or both across the road. Many traffic lights were out, and too many drivers were not following the four-way stop procedure.

Transit service was hit-and-miss, but kept operating.

BC Hydro did not do a good job in giving people information about the storm, and when they could expect power to come back on. That meant they could not make good decisions about their food, for example.

This was made much worse by the shutdown of BC Hydro’s website at the height of the power outage, and the lack of a reasonable backup.

Hydro crews and contractors did do a good job of fixing power lines as quickly as possible, as I saw firsthand on my street, where crews worked both Saturday and Sunday to replace two fallen poles and their transformers, and string lines up. There was a long delay in getting power back to customers on our street, but it was at least partially due to problems in other areas.

One of the least-remarked aspects of this outage was phone service.

Those with Telus land lines were able to keep service, for the most part – unless lines had fallen. Those with Shaw land lines lost service.

Cellphones were working at most times and in most areas, but not always. The high demand on the cellphone system did cause some temporary losses of service.

What will happen if there is an earthquake? Will the cellphone service be even more affected by intensive use?

The public needs clear answers on what is likely to happen in such a scenario. It is a certainty that there needs to be significantly more investment in cellphone infrastructure in Surrey, given the growth in population and expected future growth.

The city’s tree policy may have contributed, in a small way, to some trees remaining standing until they blew down in Saturday’s windstorm. It needs to be easier to cut down trees that pose a risk to the electric, telephone and cable wires along most major streets.

That includes trees on private property – not just those on road allowances.

There are lessons to learn from this windstorm, and hopefully decision-makers are taking heed. There will be another disaster, and it may be even worse than this one.

Frank Bucholtz writes Fridays for Peace Arch News.

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