Urban British Columbians 'overconfident' they can deal with storm fallout: BC Hydro

Despite rising threats due to climate change, more than half of British Columbians don't have an emergency kit. Among the least prepared are Metro Vancouver residents, the province's biggest urban area

BC Hydro crews work to restore electricity following a storm | Photo: BC Hydro/Twitter

Many British Columbians are “overconfident and underprepared” to cope with storm-triggered power outages, a new BC Hydro report shows.

In a survey commissioned by the electric utility last month, more than half of Metro Vancouver residents said their region was the most prepared for storm-related outages in the province. That’s despite ranking as the least likely to prepare for such an event.

“Storm season is off to an early start this year — numerous atmospheric river events and a bomb cyclone brought high levels of wind and precipitation to B.C. over the past couple of months,” notes the report, released less than 72 hours after a rare supercell tornado touched down at the University of British Columbia.

B.C. has already seen an increase in the average number of storms in a given year. In 2014, there were 52 storms across the province, but in the last few years, B.C. has averaged 117.

“It’s sort of everywhere,” says BC Hydro spokesperson Kyle Donaldson, noting storm-related outages affect about a million people a year in B.C.

On Tuesday morning, the power went out for tens of thousands of people across the North Shore, Vancouver as well as the Gulf and Vancouver islands. 

In 60% of outages in the province, the culprit is wind and rain storms hinging trees over transmission lines or knocking them flat across roads. 

But winter and summer weather rarely work in isolation. This year, an untold number of trees have been weakened by June's record-breaking heat wave, plus the summer drought conditions across much of eastern Vancouver Island and the B.C. Interior.

Add a La Niña-driven surge in rainfall and the province could be walking into “the perfect storm” for fall and winter outages, according to a separate BC Hydro report.

Why your electricity supply is affected by climate

The report notes that so far this year, a La Niña-dominated climate in B.C. has led to “stormier conditions than normal.”

This fall has already seen a rise above what’s considered normal rain. In September, triple the amount of rain fell on B.C. compared to a normal month, rising to 151 millimetres compared to the usual 51 millimetres, according to Environment Canada. 

Such wild swings from what was once thought of as normal is expected to continue long into the future. The world’s climate system is now under the influence of atmospheric carbon concentrations over 413 parts per million. That’s a level nearly 38% higher than any time in the past 800,000 years. With more carbon comes higher global temperatures, leading to wild swings in summer heat and extreme winter weather.

 

 

Natural Resources Canada’s assessment of future climate concludes the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather — from ice and heavy snowstorms to punishing wind — are likely to lead to greater interruptions in electricity supply at a time much of society is preparing to migrate their energy demands to the electricity grid.

At least half of B.C. underprepared

Provincewide, just under half said they haven’t taken any steps to prepare for a power outage, while 52% said they don’t have an emergency kit.

In B.C., just over a quarter of residents said they had experienced a storm-related power outage in the past year, though that rose to three on Vancouver Island and five in the province’s north.

In contrast to the province’s biggest urban area, the parts of the province most likely to experience power outages were also found to be the most prepared. More than half of residents in northern B.C. and Vancouver Island said they have an emergency kit ready, according to the BC Hydro survey.

That's still a long way off from where British Columbians need to be to weather storms, earthquakes and wildfires, says Ryan Reynolds, a University of British Columbia researcher in the School of Regional and Community Planning.

“There’s definitely an under-preparedness throughout Canada, not just in B.C.,” he tells Glacier Media.  

The survey also found gaps in how reliant people were on technology during a power outage. Seven out of 10 British Columbians said it’s either “important” or “very important” to have a cellphone during a power outage. In Metro Vancouver, three-quarters of people surveyed said they relied on their cellphones in an outage — more than anywhere else in the province.

In another sign of how much urban British Columbians shrug off personal relationships in favour of technology, 13% of Metro Vancouverites said they would rather be free of their partner for a day than their smart phone.

A preparation feedback loop

Past research into emergency preparedness after Hurricane Sandy in the United States has found rates of preparedness go up drastically when residents have lived through a disaster. 

But Reynolds says living through a disaster, even as seemingly benign as a power outage, can lead people to react in often conflicting ways.

Following a 2018 tsunami scare in Port Alberni, Reynolds and colleague Alexa Tanner carried out research in the community. They looked at how residents responded over the long term. 

Reynolds says he documented some people “waking up,” while others created a new baseline for what level of risk they tolerate. In other words, they were more likely to treat a false warning as a let down, shrug it off and say, “Well, it didn’t happen to me.” 

“We tend to forget that experience and, as a result, we undervalue risk,” Reynolds says.

The obvious delusion there, he says, “is you were lucky this time.”

As seen in the BC Hydro study, believing your luck will run out tends to be more common in places regularly hit by blizzards, extreme heat events or wildfires, in turn, leading people to prepare more. Those living in small, more remote communities who have no choice but to be self-sufficient are better prepared to deal with disaster, says Reynolds. 

“On Galiano Island, you’re going to be more used to being on your own because you have to be. Whereas if you live in Metro Vancouver, you can walk down to the store.”

Get ready, make a list

BC Hydro recommends residents of the province reassess how prepared they are for storms, expected to become more powerful and unpredictable as global climate change drives intense weather events.

One place to start is the utility’s “outage checklist,” which walks residents through developing a preparedness plan, building an emergency kit and advice on what to do during and after an outage. 

The survey involved 801 B.C. residents from Oct. 15 to 19, and carries a margin of error of 3.56%.