Michaels: Power outage highlights problems in emergency preparedness

The only remnant of everyday civility was a battery powered clock tick-tocking away, marking the time it took for power to be restored.

Being stranded on the SkyTrain and then taking an alarming sprint down a treelined city street as branches crashed to the ground and leaves pelted my little family was an exhilarating start to my Vancouver weekend.

But excitement quickly turned to aggravation when I was stranded in my parents’s electricity-free home for two days.

Conversations that are usually deftly dodged with delightful television interruptions were explored. The horrific sounds of chewing were crisp and clear without the whir of appliances drowning them out.

The only remnant of everyday civility was a battery powered clock tick-tocking away, marking the seemingly endless stream of time it took for power to be restored.

It was a lot to endure. It started to feel a bit like the preamble to the Michaels Family Sequel of Lord of the Flies. Therapy may be required to wash it all from my mind. Lots of expensive therapy.

While I’m calculating the personal costs of this storm, I’d like to point out that watching, and eventually smelling, a freezer full of food go bad is as dispiriting as it is costly. It would have been one thing if area residents were told to hunker down for a multi-day blackout. But they weren’t. BC Hydro had a defunct website and a painfully pointless Twitter stream offering useless information until batteries wore out.  So it was of no surprise to see Vancouverites taking to social media channels to demand reimbursement. It would be something to offset what was clearly a fumble on behalf of the provincial Crown Corporation.

Days without power is one thing. Days of being kept in the dark because of a failure of information technology is another.

BC Hydro’s website crash was  disrespectful, frustrating and above all else, unnecessary.  Especially given that this little blip in weather stability happened in an area that is expecting to literally be rocked by “the big one” any time now. They should have a nearly infallible emergency response system.

But Crown corporation proved this weekend that if and when a big earthquake happens, they’re not ready to serve their customers, despite having been given plenty of notice to get their act together.

A December 2012 report titled “Corporate Disaster Preparedness Planning” from BC Hydro’s internal audit branch,  laid it all out.

“BC Hydro is not adequately prepared to react, respond, and recover from a widespread catastrophic event such as an earthquake, as there is not a mature or integrated disaster preparedness program,” news organization, the Tyee, pulled from the report in 2013.

“An effective governance structure to oversee, co-ordinate and report on disaster preparedness activities is not in place.”

On a “maturity level,” ranging from the lowest 1 to highest 5, Hydro’s disaster readiness was pegged at between 1 and 2. The auditors said Hydro should try to reach level 3, which is “an appropriate industry benchmark.”

If not, the widespread loss of electricity could be disastrous, was the summary of the report.

All of this was said three years ago, and Hydro then claimed it would be taking immediate action.

Clearly, their understanding of “immediate” is lacking.

Maybe the best thing to come out of this is simply that realization that they won’t be there for British Columbians should the worst happen. It really is time for everyone to ramp up their emergency preparedness. And, while you’re at it, don’t forget to get a device that will make noises to fill in all the painful silences.