Katie Lewis: B.C.'s disaster communications has been slow and ineffective

It took B.C. three days to declare a state of emergency. The provincial emergency alert system does squat. And everyone keeps passing the buck.

From the B.C. Ministry of Transport.

It’s like watching a slow-moving train wreck: not once. Twice. Three times. Three times in the last six months, B.C. has faced “unprecedented” disasters: wildfires; a heat dome that killed almost 600 people; and the recent flooding, which continues to engulf multiple parts of B.C. and has killed at least two. Three times the provincial government’s response to these emergencies has been agonizingly slow. No emergency cell phone alerts. No bulletins on TV. Just… silence. For days. 

There’s no doubt this latest disaster is a whammy for any provincial government. Vancouver is cut off from the rest of the country, more people could die in the days ahead as more storms approach, supply chains have buckled. So many have lost their homes, farms, animals and more. About half of B.C.’s dairy industry is crippled. People are hoarding, fuel is being limited in many locations, and panic and desperation — while not helpful — are everywhere. In the face of this, Premier John Horgan is undergoing cancer treatment. Let’s just say 2021 has been the worst. The worst.

But as the impact of climate change rears its ugly head in B.C., these adverse weather events keep happening and the provincial government's response to these emergencies continues to be devastatingly slow. The state of emergency unpreparedness in B.C. has become so painfully evident within the last six months — disaster after disaster. The response to these emergencies must change now or more people will die. 

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In emergencies, minutes matter. Communication matters. Officials in Washington State gave people days to evacuate. They were well ahead of us in announcing a state of emergency and keeping people informed. They communicated early, openly and pragmatically. In B.C., those affected didn’t even receive a cellphone alert.

It’s not often you get to look at how two governments handle a similar emergency and the difference is striking. The implications of speed — or lack thereof — are severe: lives are on the line. A few examples: 

Sunday, November 14:

Whatcom County, WA issues a Proclamation of Emergency to expedite the flood response. Residents are encouraged to be prepared to evacuate if flood conditions worsen. Sandbags are on-hand at local fire stations if needed.

Meanwhile in B.C., there are no emergency alerts or proclamations. But don’t worry, there’s Twitter. Emergency Info BC re-tweets The City of Merrit’s flood warning and the City of Abbotsford’s Evacuation Alert for specific areas. DriveBC retweets a short tweet about heavy rain and flooding from BC Transportation and posts something online. Let’s repeat that folks: People are finding out about flooding and evacuation orders on Twitter. The provincial government won’t comment to B.C. reporters. It is a Sunday, you know.

Meanwhile, local mayors and municipalities are shouldering everything and scrambling, which continues into Monday, as flooding worsens.

Monday, November 15: 

WA Governor Jay Inslee issues an emergency proclamation in 14 counties, which means the WA State Emergency Management Division and State Military Department (with the support of the WA National Guard) will coordinate all responses in the affected areas. 

Meanwhile, in B.C., there is still no emergency alert, no emergency cabinet meeting. Almost 300 people, including 50 children, are rescued by the military after being trapped between two landslides. All the emergency communication responsibility continues to be placed on the local government. All 7,000 residents of Merrit are ordered to evacuate the city. Abbotsford mayor Henry Braun holds a press conference on YouTube. Again, there is no consistency in communication — people are encouraged to check Drive BC for up-to-date information. Are we sensing a theme yet?

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth is asked six times in a press conference if the government could have done more — either in being prepared or communicating with the public. He says no, the responsibility is “at the local level.” Is that fair or realistic?

Tuesday, November 16: 

In WA, Whatcom County issues a government flood response update, provides residents with updated information, including road impacts, numbers to call, how the public can help and even information about how people should be documenting flood damage. Washington State Department of Transportation reports on road closures and evacuation reports. Sandbags are available in multiple locations — some open 24/7. Three rivers still have flood warnings.

In B.C., again, emergency communication is left to the local government and people are desperate for information. Abbotsford mayor Mayor Henry Braun flies over the flooding in Sumas Prairie, noting the situation is “unprecedented.” An urgent evacuation order for those in the Sumas Prairie is released later that day, warning that "catastrophic" flooding is expected. People are, again, finding out about it from word-of-mouth or on Twitter. Braun decides to not use the emergency alert system and instead send people door-to-door to tell people to leave. Is that the right call? Should it be his call to make?

But don’t worry, “A provincewide state of emergency is very much on the table,” says Farnworth, noting that there is a regular cabinet meeting on Wednesday and some decisions will come out then. 

Seriously? The province asks the federal government for support Tuesday night. Time keeps a tickin’.

Several hundred volunteers and contractors in Abbotsford (many from Chilliwack) step up and save the Barrowtown Pump Station in Abbotsford from failing, by working all night to create a dam out of sandbags. We are utterly grateful for their work. The pump station holds — for now.

(Photo: Erik Dv)

Wednesday, November 17:

In WA, Gov. Inslee visits Whatcom County on Wednesday to assess the damage from the flood and meet with local officials. WA state has a cash assistance program it can activate during emergencies and disasters and local officials are also in regular contact with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as they survey the damage. 

In B.C., a province-wide state of emergency is finally declared that afternoon. The state of emergency is important as it gives the government power over travel and resources, such as access to basic supplies. 

“Please do not hoard items,” says B.C. Premier John Horgan. Um, too late. Unfortunately, many grocery store shelves are already bare. The province continues to defend its efforts and response time, while pointing fingers at local government. 

Thursday, November 18:

On Thursday, additional members of the armed forces are finally in B.C. to assist with the province’s flood recovery. Additionally, more than 150 people arrive in Vancouver, after being stranded in Hope since Sunday, thanks to a coordinated effort by Emergency Management B.C., Via Rail and CN Rail. That’s a long time to wait.

Meanwhile in WA, Inslee holds a news conference announcing he’ll “aggressively” seek federal funds and that people are going door-to-door to seek damage assessments. 

Friday, November 19: 

In B.C., Farnworth announces a limit on the amount of gas people can buy (30L per visit) for the next 10-11 days, after panic at the pump leads to fuel hoarding and panic-buying. On the same day, he also said police wouldn’t police gas sales. 

Meanwhile, WA state begins to clean up. There are no fuel shortages, the U.S. is now promising to send supplies to B.C. Is the province holding high-level discussions with the president, prime minister, governor and premier to consider an emergency transportation corridor across the U.S. to transport goods into the interior of B.C.? We should be. 


These examples lead to the obvious conclusion: B.C. dropped the ball. Unlike almost every other province, B.C. has never used its emergency alert system, which was rolled out nationally three years ago. Not in July, when the heat dome killed 600 people. Not in the last week, when flooding threatened many peoples’ lives. What is the point of having an emergency alert system if we’re never going to use it?

Honestly, the province’s indignation about not using the tool is at best, uninformed and at worse, callous. 

It’s “one tool,” said Farnworth on Monday. 

“It’s not a silver bullet.” 

Cool, cool. But genuinely, it’s an important tool for people and we should be using it immediately, just like other provinces, like Alberta and Ontario. In an emergency, people are desperate for information. Relying on local government (and social media) and word-of-mouth is insane. The province needs to examine the alert system immediately and put it into action. People need (and deserve) coordinated, constant, reliable communication in an emergency. They deserve leaders.

This is the third emergency in six months where the B.C. government has come across as woefully unprepared. Simply put, we keep getting told that everything is under control, but we keep failing the tests. Far too much has been left to local municipalities.

B.C.’s Emergency Program Act was originally created in 1993 and the government must reassess its emergency management laws — but most importantly actually implement changes. The act looks at disaster risk management, outlining the roles and responsibilities of local and provincial governments as they respond to emergencies. Guess what: despite updates, nothing has actually been implemented (we’re told it’s going to happen in 2022) and most local municipalities do not have the ability to meet the requirements of the act.

Local municipalities do not have the bandwidth (or the budget) to handle it all and the province must step up — quickly — and stop passing the buck and hiding behind this act. The size and scope of emergencies have changed, and climate change needs to be recognized in the new law. 

British Columbians can’t afford to wait any longer — people will die as a result of these continued failures. After the deadly heat dome this summer, an internal review was promised. An external review is the right call at this point, given the communication failures in the most recent flooding. 

People in B.C. often talk about the long-awaited major earthquake that is predicted here. There is now little confidence that the government could manage such a disaster.

The response to the ongoing flooding disaster has been far too slow — and inadequate. B.C. can and must do better. Examples of others doing a faster, better, more communicative job are right before our eyes — in WA state and across the country — so let’s get going. Our province cannot wait.

Katie Lewis is a Canadian journalist who has contributed to the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Star, the National Post, Al Jazeera, Radio Uganda, NPR and CBC. She tweets @kelewis.


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A guest post by
Katie Lewis is a Canadian journalist who has contributed to the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Star, the National Post, Al Jazeera, Radio Uganda, NPR and CBC.