Municipal governments in the Cowichan Valley stepped up to the plate to deal with the windstorm and its aftermath.
Kris Schumacher, a spokesman for the Cowichan Valley Regional District, said the windstorm impacted the entire region, with approximately 90 per cent of the CVRD’s jurisdiction without power at one point.
He said that resulted in a complex situation where an urban community like Chemainus was impacted to roughly the same extent as rural community like Youbou, with large trees and power lines blocking all of the roads into and out of the communities for a considerable period of time.
Schumacher said the CVRD had already enacted a Level 1 Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) on Dec. 13 in response to the potential for flooding, and elevated it to Level 2 on December 20.
“Following the restoration of power and access to regional community facilities, the CVRD established and helped coordinate a number of warming centres on Dec. 22, which included the Island Saving Centre, Kerry Park Recreation Centre, Frank Jameson Community Centre, and Lake Cowichan Secondary School,” he said.
“A generator was also secured and transported to Thetis Island to establish a warming centre in that community. CVRD staff also responded to all of its utilities to ensure the generators were operating and providing water and sewage services to residents.”
Schumacher said the heightened Level 2 EOC was enacted until Dec. 24, and the CVRD’s EOC remains active at Level 1 as the district continues to assess and assist with impacts from the windstorm.
He said additional measures that were taken included the free disposal of spoiled foods at the CVRD’s three waste collection centres, and additional hours of operation for Peerless and Meade Creek on Jan. 7-8 to accommodate disposal of debris related to the windstorm.
“The impacts of this weather event reached far beyond the boundaries of the CVRD, affecting communities from Port Alberni to Victoria and placing tremendous workloads on agencies like BC Hydro for response,” Schumacher said.
“The widespread damage and impact meant that in many instances, the only option for residents was to shelter in place and seek out or provide assistance from neighbours where possible. In liaising with first responders across the region, it appears that most residents and communities banded together and supported each other, which is precisely what should happen during an incident of this magnitude.”
Schumacher said the CVRD would like to acknowledge and express gratitude to all the first responders who worked tirelessly over many days to ensure the safety of residents in their communities, and everyone who contributed to the restoration of access and services across the region.
“For residents across the Cowichan region, this experience will reinforce the importance of household emergency preparedness in the event of potentially even more significant service disruptions that would result from a natural disaster like a major earthquake,” he said.
“Residents are encouraged to visit the Emergency Management section of the CVRD website that provides current emergency information and useful tools like an Emergency Preparedness Workbook.”
Duncan’s city hall and its public works office remained open on Dec. 20, despite the loss of power, to try to deal with the crisis as best as city officials could.
Peter de Verteuil, the city’s CAO, said power was restored to city hall and the public works office the next morning, and all staff were in place to deal with the after effects of the storm.
He said the power outage meant that the standby generators for the city’s sewer, water and stormwater infrastructure were heavily utilized.
“The generators performed very well and the systems remained operational for the entire period of power outages,” de Verteuil said.
“The generators had to be topped up with fuel daily, which required some overtime and call outs. Some generators were operational for a period of hours, others for approximately a week.”
De Verteuil said that while the city does not directly operate any of the area’s recreation complexes, it does contribute financially to their operations.
He said the Cowichan Aquatic Centre, which is operated by the Municipality of North Cowichan, was open for residents to shower and warm up.
“While the Island Savings Centre (operated by the Cowichan Valley Regional District) did not function as a formal ‘warming station’, it was open for residents to attend,” de Verteuil said.
“There were approximately 10 downed trees on city property, none of which impacted roadways. Two of these downed trees required BC Hydro crews to attend.”
De Verteuil said the Duncan fire department experienced a significant increase in calls for service during the storm, primarily for downed power lines due to trees.
“The calls typically required fire department crews to cordon off the area and provide details of the damage to dispatch, for the Hydro crews’ information,” he said.
“There was also an increase in medical-aid calls while the ambulances were attending to the Boys Road incident (in which 28-year-old Melissa Brenda Joe died after a tree fell on her during the windstorm)”.
Natasha Horsman, a spokeswoman for the Municipality of North Cowichan, said the municipality’s operations and communications departments also received a high volume of calls, typically to report road closures, fallen trees, property damage, or request updates on road status and electricity.
She said many staff members from North Cowichan worked during off-hours and scheduled vacations to help the community recover as quickly as possible.
Horsman said many areas were without power for a number of days, and in some cases, roads were impassable for days where BC Hydro crews were needed to handle downed wires.
“This serves as a reminder that we all need to be prepared to be without power for a few days,” she said.
“Residents are encouraged to review the Emergency Preparedness Workbook on the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s website for tips and suggestions on getting prepared.”
Horsman said the clean-up from the storm will continue into early February, particularly with respect to roadside debris collection and parks and trails clean-up.
She said the municipality has heard from a number of residents after the storm hoping that local governments would collect debris and fallen tree limbs from private properties.
“Widespread debris collection is a service that North Cowichan and, indeed, most local governments cannot provide, as the costs of collection across such a large geographic area would be high,” she said.
“Instead, free debris drop-off was made available at many of the regional waste management facilities. We ask residents to remember that debris from the storm should not be burned at this time. We are not within an open-burning window and burning outside of designated windows can be detrimental to the region’s air quality.”
Horsman reminded residents that emergency management in the Cowichan Valley is led by the CVRD.
She said that whenever a potential emergency situation occurs, staff at the CVRD work with local governments to determine whether an Emergency Operations Centre should be mobilized and liaise with Emergency Management BC.
“In this case, the CVRD convened an EOC on Dec. 20, which remained open until Dec. 24,” Horsman said.
“The EOC acts as a coordination centre for emergency response. Even though the storm occurred just prior to the holidays, the CVRD and North Cowichan were able to quickly mobilize the staff needed for storm response.”
Horsman said there is always something to be learned from responding to a significant weather event.
“The CVRD and member local governments have been and will continue to debrief on the storm response to evaluate areas for future improvement,” she said.
Municipal staff in the Town of Lake Cowichan were also kept on their toes due to the windstorm.
Joseph Fernandez, the town’s CAO, said the power outages that kept much of Lake Cowichan in the dark and cold in the days after the windstorm struck on Dec. 20 were a challenge for almost everyone in the area.
But he said town staff managed to use back-up generators to keep the water and sewer systems running through the crisis.
“We certainly did the best we could at the time,” Fernandez said.
“But we didn’t hear much from the public during those days because all the phone lines at the municipal hall were down. We do know there were major concerns with people having to deal with the cold in their homes, and with some of those who have health issues.”
Fernandez said the town has to consider what options are available to deal with situations when communications are interrupted to ensure people can contact municipal and other officials during emergencies like the windstorm.
Fernandez said an emergency preparedness meeting will be held in Lake Cowichan on Jan. 23 and encouraged people to attend.
The meeting will be held in the Upper Centennial Hall in Lake Cowichan, beginning at 6 p.m.
“With climate change, I expect that storms like the one that struck the area may be the new norm, so we must prepare for them,” Fernandez said.