Are you ready?

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Clay Adams | September 10th, 2015

It was short, frightening and left most people stunned. No, I’m not talking about a Donald Trump campaign speech or Miley Cyrus – yet again – at the Music Video Awards. I’m talking about the 2015 windstorm.

In less than an hour, Mother Nature brought most of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland to its knees. We all know wind can be deadly (burrito anyone?) but this was unlike anything we had seen for a long, long time.

The benchmark storm seems to be 2006 when, overnight, winds flattened a swath of Stanley Park and closed the seawall. While many people lost power, compared to our recent one the impact seems relatively minor.

One could argue if not for Stanley Park, which actually turned out to be an opportunity to redevelop parking around Prospect Point rather than a hindrance, 2006 would have faded into memory as just another winter storm. Perhaps because of Stanley Park, people took more notice. Much like poor Cecil the lion. Animals are tragically slaughtered by trophy hunters daily yet, sadly, it is only when we give them an identity and personality that people seem to notice.

Almost a million

The August 29 windstorm shut down over 700,000 homes. Traffic signals died, malls and businesses shut down and hospitals were forced to turn to backup generators. Surprisingly – and thankfully – there were few injuries. While prayers continue for the Good Samaritan who remains in hospital with serious injuries from a fallen tree, there was little else to report. Nobody died. Our EDs were not overwhelmed and even traffic collisions were surprisingly few despite the stupidity of some drivers speeding through packed intersections. Rules of the road…four-way stop people!!!

While the storm may have shown our frailties in dealing with the unpredictable wrath of Mother Nature, it highlighted a far more serious risk stemming from disasters – silence.

As BC Hydro fought to identify and fix outages throughout the Lower Mainland, people became increasingly angry at why their power was out and the apparent lack of attention to deal with it. Any disaster brings periods of challenge, hence why experts say be prepared for at least 72 hours of no food, water or power.

Good communication

But people became less concerned about what happened and more concerned about what was happening. August 29 openly showed the importance of clear and timely communication.

Now be clear that I’m not condemning my communication colleagues over at BC Hydro. More to the point I actually feel for them. As a potential disaster hits – and be aware that this was relatively minor in the scheme of things – the company’s website goes dark. And stays dark. Not because of a loss of power, but because customers did what they have always been told to do – in the event of an outage, go to the BC Hydro website.

People did. In their thousands. The site couldn’t handle the traffic, went down and stayed down. People wanted to know that they weren’t alone but the company couldn’t tell them. As an alternative, some went to Twitter which is increasingly acknowledged as the “real” source of timely news these days.

Alas, BC Hydro struggled to share useful information instead tweeting about increasing outages (with no locations) and that crews were being brought into to fix things (with no sense of where or when). Hydro struggled and subsequently apologized once the lights came back on, trees were cleared and roads swept. But the damage to its credibility was done and, frighteningly for VCH, showed just how vulnerable we all are to similar situations.

What can we do?

Right after the August storm we started looking at our own website, pondering if we could survive serious levels of user traffic and, if not, what our backup plan would be. Now it’s unlikely that VCH.ca will be a “go to” site in the event of a major disaster – or will it? What do we have that people might need to know and know urgently?

Should we be positioning VCH as an information source for patient information and location following a major catastrophe? If bridges are down, buildings flattened and scores missing how will people know if their loved on is safe, critically injured or even dead? Where should people go if they need care or where do we need them to go to ensure resources are prioritised and care delivered in the most appropriate means? Will they turn to VCH for that or will other emergency services kick in?

If nothing else, the storm gave us a kick in the butt by helping us recognize the need for preparedness. Not just thinking we’re prepared, but knowing we’re prepared. And if we’re not, then we darn well need to be.

We have long surpassed the information age and even the digital age. We are now in an age of information entitlement. People want to know and they want to know now. The question remains: are we prepared?

About the Author

Clay Adams
email iconClay.Adams@vch.ca  

Clay Adams is vice president of Communications and Public Affairs and has extensive experience in strategic communications and planning, media relations, issues management and stakeholder communications in Australia and Canada. Clay writes on communication related topics with a wry humorous style and has an interest in discussion about how we want to be understood by others. View all the posts by Clay.

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