The wind storm of last December that knocked out power in the Chemainus area for several days just before Christmas had a profound impact on everyone.
The Chemainus Residents Association and a branch of the organization created as a response to the situation that became known as the Chemainus Emergency Preparedness Network have done considerable work in the past year to make sure residents are better prepared when something like that happens again.
Lia Versaevel, chairperson of the Chemainus Residents Association, conducted an extensive post-storm analysis of what worked well, what didn’t work so well and how people can better prepare for the next event – be it another wind storm, earthquake, explosion or something else.
It took over three months to make things right, Versaevel pointed out, and longer for those waiting for insurance claims for broken fences or other property and to repair roads or roofs.
Versaevel’s analysis showed Chemainus needed the volunteer emergency response team, modelled on ones that have existed in other locations for a long time. Following are excerpts from her letter as she sets the scene and provides residents with a recap of what happened to develop an action plan to ensure no one is literally left in the dark when an unforeseen event occurs again:
“It was December, a cold and dark winter time in Chemainus. The sun, if it appeared at all through the fog and cloud, was up for less than six hours a day due to Winter Solstice. Those with land phone lines were cut off first when the power went out. Those with battery powered radios listened frantically for news, which was never broadcast. With no electricity, baseboard heaters ceased to work, pumps ceased to bring up water from wells, for both humans and livestock, and apartment dwellers were chilled to the bone.
Few had generators, but a few more had gas fireplaces, and others, a woodstove or barbeque. Most had nothing. Those without cars were completely stranded, although it soon became clear that nobody was leaving. C-pap and oxygen machines ceased to function, without power. The roads were all blocked, in and out of Chemainus, it appeared. It was dangerous to go out, with branches and debris flying about the streets. Still, dogs had to go outside to relieve themselves, and people had to go with them. Livestock still needed to be fed and cared for.
People sheltered in place. Cell phones died, with no way to charge them, as did laptops, as their batteries ran down. Hot water tanks on electricity ceased to provide hot water, and candles or flashlights were the only source of light. Freezers began to thaw. Twenty-four hours passed.
On the next day, it was eerily quiet, except for the wind. Those with emergency stores of food started dipping into rations; milk was poured down the drains, having gone sour. Freezers began to leak. Still no news on the radio, on local stations, about what was happening in Chemainus. There were, however, updates on surrounding areas. Computers were not working, nor was social media. Batteries were conserved, and the second day passed. It was getting colder.
By day three, after endless attempts to phone, I had asked via Facebook (I was in Australia) if someone in Chemainus could check on my 90-year-old mother, alone in her house with two dogs. I had tried to call for 72 hours, and had heard that the Malahat was closed due to trees down. I was relieved to know she had a gas fireplace, and prayed it was still working.
I knew that my sister couldn’t get up Island to check on my mom. I knew that she was resilient, and had supplies, but I worried for many elders in Chemainus. A helpful neighbor, Nuria Sanchez, answered my Facebook plea, and went to check on my mom, bless her heart. She took her thermoses of hot soup, tea and chili, and assured me via Facebook, that mom was OK. Nuria had a generator, and she was able to power up her computer occasionally to check for information. My mom was alone, save for this neighbour, and frightened.
By day four, my sister had made it up the island, but there was only one way out of Chemainus, up from Crozier Road to Fuller Lake Arena. She collected my mom and the dogs and took them down to Victoria for a few days, until another sister was able to catch a ferry over from the mainland and bring mom home to Chemainus once the power was restored.
When I got back to Canada two weeks later, I still could not believe how many wires were hanging dangerously close to the ground, and the volume of branches and wood down everywhere I travelled. Friends at church relayed stories of being cold and dark for days, like my mom.
A sign on the Senior Centre had said “closed” when my friends went to look, and directed people to the Fuller Lake Arena, but many without transportation or with pets had no alternatives whatsoever. Stores that had relied on the pre-Christmas trade, usually their best week of the year, were devastated by the loss of power as well as the loss of income. Medications that needed refrigeration had to be discarded, both at pharmacies, and at home, and supplies ran low. Gas stations, if you could get to them, couldn’t pump gas. Electric vehicles couldn’t be charged. Water pumps did not pump water.
Friends told me that skylights had blown right off their roof, and having no ladder (not that they should have climbed one at over 80 years of age, in a storm), and that if it weren’t for friends who knew helpers, they would have had an awful lot of water throughout their house, with the amount of rain that was coming down. They realized that they did not know their neighbours, or what condition their neighbours might be in. They saw one elderly man in his car, with the engine running, and when they approached, he said he was just trying to keep warm and charge his phone, not that he could get a signal. They assured each other they had some non-perishable foods, and returned to the safety of their building.
A major assisted living building in Chemainus had to transfer patients out, as did the local health care centre. Food and supplies had to be taken to Penelakut Island by water taxi and the Neighbourhood House collected food and supplies.
Churches were closed, but parishioners did check on one another, as they were able. My mother’s parish priest, Rev. Michael Wimmer, came around to see if she was OK after three days. He and his wife, Pat, took a couple of other elderly ladies home with them to Nanaimo.
We can and we must do better with some help from North Cowichan municipality. Perhaps we could start with some kind of communications strategy for all folks, not just those with smart phones. The lack of information available from Muni, hydro, local radio and CVRD for many citizens was stunning in December 2018.”