Storm lays bare the weak spots in B.C.’s disaster preparedness

Today, before any blame, must come gratitude.

One would think British Columbia would be ready for rain more than anything else. But nothing in anyone’s memory has struck like this rain – and then this wind – in recent days.

How on earth can there be blame? You couldn’t possibly have been prepared for so many roads to close or collapse under the weight of water, for bridges to wash out and cut communities from each other, for trains to topple and bolt-cut the already precious supply chain, for a barge to beach, and for cars and trucks and their waylaid inhabitants to be stuck in the mud.

A severed Coquihalla, a subsumed Malahat, an awash Abbotsford, a saturated Merritt and Princeton, search-and-rescue missions in Agassiz. Traffic choked, cities cornered, the province isolated. It feels like it's. . .everywhere.

Gratitude, then. At least one has died near Lillooet, and let’s hope for no more.

Thousands have rolled up sleeves to help, some of them fearless rescue units and many of them just plugging themselves in where they could be useful. A mayor directing traffic, a pizza place dropping off food to stranded travellers, helicopters to hoist the highway marooned, transport trucks bringing animals to higher ground, neighbours bringing neighbours to evacuation centres or relatives’ homes out of harm’s way.

Countless small and large gestures, evidence of community everywhere.

This innate kindness and selflessness have been tapped constantly in the pandemic through the lockdowns, through the horrid discovery of residential school graves, through the forest fires, through the heat dome, through the losses at Lytton, and now through this.

It isn’t as if British Columbia is learning anything new, only applying what it knew all along about empathy and support.

In each case, though, and in due course, a sensible consequence is to explore how institutions responded to ensure anything that faltered might not be repeated. There are bound to be questions about why the weekend went by and there was not in British Columbia the same alarm rung that there was in adjacent Alberta and Washington.

Might more people have had adequate time to arrange themselves to leave their homes, particularly if expert advice would be warning of what appeared ahead?

Might fewer people have taken routine trips that would send their lives into chaos and fear? Might there have been rail lines and highways closed to wait out the effects instead of wading into them?

Clearly some municipalities have not kept pace with infrastructural needs or in a couple of cases situated crucial facilities where they wouldn’t be ineffectual in disaster. Even the wisest engineers and prescient politicians don’t often plan for the worst-case scenario.

The economic effects will knock on for a long time from this long weekend of precipitation, whether it’s another layer of inflation, another bout of insurance premium hikes or another raft of empty supermarket shelves or escalating prices at the pumps.

These one-in-a-100-year events have landed with the coincidence of a slot machine jackpot upon us (we haven't had the big earthquake, yet) and just as the pandemic created a new abnormal, so does climate change. There are already clamours for communities to more seriously address the climate emergency, but these global issues can’t be contended with at a municipal level. Senior government with big money spread across a nation offers the most intelligent scale to tackle the challenge. Mind you, even the greatest effort won’t roll back the clock, so we ought to expect more atmospheric rivers, heat domes, fierce winds, frigid storms, too much and too little water within weeks of each other.

But that’s for another day. Today is for appreciation. Let's dig out before digging in. It’s not called Beautiful British Columbia only for the scenery.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.