Monday, August 31, 2015

Lessons learned from the BC Wind Storm

Like many of my readers I spent much of the weekend dealing with the consequences of the big windstorm that hit the west coast on the weekend. For those of you not aware, what was supposed to be a pretty typical rainstorm ended up being massive wind storm which, at its peak, knocked out power to over 500,000 people in Metro Vancouver. Given our population (about 2.5 million) that means about 1 in 5 households was affected by the power outage. Our house was one of the 500,000 and, unfortunately, we were one of the last of the big substations to be energized so many individual houses in our area still don’t have power 48 hours after the end of the storm. This post is a bit of a post-mortem or as we say in my field a “post-incident analysis” where I will share some of the things I learned from this storm to help prepare our household for “the Big One” (the predicted earthquake that we all know is coming on the west coast). It also ends with some unsolicited advice for our friends at BC Hydro about their communications strategy for the storm.
In my work the way we improve our safety performance is through post-incident safety assessments. Every negative safety incident is accompanied by a post-incident analysis. This involves looking at the incident and asking the question: “what is the worst thing that could have happened”. We then do a root-cause analysis in order to establish and address the root cause of the incident. Ideally in doing this, similar incidents can be avoided in the future. In addition to incidents we also track and investigate every “near miss”. A near miss is an event that could have resulted in an incident but did not. Usually the difference between a near miss and an incident is simply good luck (i.e. a trip that caused a bump but didn’t break a bone). In our industry a near miss is seen as a “free learning”: an opportunity to catch a problem before someone gets hurt.
Without belittling the cost this windstorm had in human hardship and financial losses it pretty much represents a near miss when compared to the Big One. In this case only 1 in 5 households was hit, in daytime, on a weekend, in summer and only power was affected. We have been warned that in the event of the Big One, we have to be in a position to take care of ourselves without outside help for a minimum of 72 hours. That means assuming that the entire lower mainland is affected; that power, water and natural gas supplies will be offline; and we can expect no help of any kind (except from our neighbours) for at least three days.

Looking at our how our family emergency plan held up during the power outage it was clear that while we did a lot of things right, we have some serious holes to address. We have a reasonable store of water and dried goods and while we would be uncomfortable we would not starve nor lack for water for three-to-five days. Now for the biggest holes.
My plan for cooking during an emergency involves using the bar-b-que. However, it being the end of summer instead of having a lot of fuel, I have been working on the bottom half of my one tank. For emergency preparedness I should have taken my father-in-law’s advice to have at least one full tank in reserve at all times. Since the roads to Langley City (which had power) were open (as was Costco) I was able to rectify that problem on Sunday morning. Had I waited much longer though, I would have been out of luck. When I showed up at the Husky (the only place in our area that had power and sold propane) I discovered that they had about an hour’s supply of propane left in their tank (at the rate they were selling it) and they had already sold out of both gas and diesel.
Talking gasoline, we have a four-tiered plan for shelter depending on what happens to our house in a big earthquake. Tier two is to shelter in the minivan. Once again I failed to take my father-in-law’s advice. He never lets his fuel tank get to less than half-full so he has a reserve in case of an emergency. I, meanwhile, had let my tank get to almost empty as I was waiting for a chance to visit my in-laws in Aldergrove (where I can buy cheaper gas). Fortunately, I was able to get $20 of gas from the local Chevron (apparently the only gas station in Walnut Grove with an emergency back-up generator). I was later able to fill up in Aldergrove but, as I mentioned, the gas station with propane in Langley City had long run out of gas and diesel so in the case of the Big One finding an operating gas station may not have been an option for me.
As for paying for the gasoline, I only got $20 of gas from the local Chevron because I didn’t have much cash on hand. My wife never carries cash (she likes debit) and it is only by habit that I make sure to have a few actual bills in my wallet. Except during the power outage Interac was down (no power) so everyone was accepting cash-only. When the BC preparedness people say to keep a couple hundred dollars in small bills on hand it is for that reason. Our area has power but the phone lines are still down so it looks like could be back to a cash-only society for a few days still. 
Part of my plan for time without power is having a supply of ice available. But we learned another lesson and this one I want to share with the folks at BC Hydro. We were lucky that we were able to get enough ice to save many of our perishables from the fridge (by putting them in coolers) and our deep freeze was okay but due to the communication policy of BC Hydro we lost a lot of food we did not need to lose. As most locals know BC Hydo (our government-owned utility) had an almost complete collapse of its public communication system during the storm. Their web site crashed, their phone lines were jammed and it took quite a while for even their Twitter feed to come to life. Once up the Twitter feed (and the good old fashioned AM radio) were what we used to make our plans and this is where my issue with BC Hydro comes to play.
My one big complaint about BC Hydro (whose employees have worked incredibly hard this weekend to restore power) is that they did not come close to giving us any reliable information for most of the time we were without power. We lost power just after noon on Saturday. By late Saturday BC Hydro got their Twitter feed running and was reassuring us that we would get power back by midnight. Using that as our guide we decided to leave the fridge freezer and fridge unopened, counting on insulation and retained cold to keep everything okay until the power came back that night. Waking up Sunday morning we were shocked that the power was not yet on. We went back online and were informed on Sunday morning that power in our area would be back by noon. Come noon we still had no power and had not had power for 24 hours which I was taught is the cut-off for trusting your fridge without power. If BC Hydro had been honest with us at the onset we could have triaged our fridge/freezer and saved a lot of good food by moving the more expensive meat etc...from the fridge freezer to the deep freeze and being more aggressive with our use of ice and coolers. The problem with triaging is that it means opening the freezer and losing a lot of the less expensive stuff which we thought we might be able to save by simply being prudent about fridge use (and would have happened if the power had only been off for 6-to-12 hours).
I know, I know BC Hydro was not in a position to give exact estimates but surely they must have known pretty early into Saturday afternoon that this was not a problem they were going to be able to address in 6 hours. All they would have had to do is simply announce: “this is too big to handle right away expect to be without power for at least 24 + hours” and we could have acted accordingly. Instead we trusted BC Hydro’s unrelentingly optimistic estimates and lost many hundreds of dollars worth of groceries, much of which could have been saved with better information.
As an outsider I have no sense on how BC Hydro comes up with their repair estimates, but I am informed that until the local power sub-station has been energized they are not going to know all the problems down-line from the local sub-station. I only learned at around 4 pm Sunday that the sub-station that powers our entire area had been de-energized and was not going to be energized until Sunday at 5 pm. In our case it was a further 10 hours after the sub-station was energized before we got power. I know the organization wanted to put a good spin on the situation but they must have known that if a sub-station is de-energized then telling me at 6 pm that power from a de-energized sub-station will be up at midnight is simply not going to happen.
This situation reminds me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (yes I am a nerd) where Commander Scott (Scotty) guest-starred. In the episode Scotty pointed out to Geordie (the Head Engineer of the Enterprise) that Scotty always over-estimated how long it would take to fix a problem. His logic was that  if something went wrong he still had time to meet his original estimate but if he got everything done right he would be done early and he would get praise as a “miracle-worker”. By giving us overly optimistic predictions did the exact opposite, instead they made us resent them. In effect BC Hydro wasn’t helping us and In doing so was actually hurting their brand. Throughout the weekend they repeatedly gave cheery predictions which they, time-after-time, failed to meet. Each time they did so it got us more and more angry. Had they told us a less optimistic (more realistic?) estimate right up front (and they must have known pretty early that  it was going to be more than 24 hours) we might have grumbled but then we could have planned accordingly.
I have a client who gave me some words of advice early in my career that I remember to this day.  She said:
never lie to me or try to say something is clean when it is not. This is my job and I know you didn’t make the mess and that you are just the guy figuring out how to clean it up. I won’t hold bad news against you as long as you tell me the truth no matter how hard it may be for me to hear. With the truth I can make plans, allocate budgets and make promises to my bosses. I will, however, definitely hold it against you if you mislead me or don’t tell me the truth because then I can’t make good decisions, I will mis-spend my budget and I am likely to make promises to my bosses that I cannot meet. If I do that because you misled me then I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.
If BC Hydro learns only one thing from this event it should be that people will be disappointed with bad news but will be furious if they think (even wrongly) that they have been knowingly misled.


  1. Always under promise, always over deliver.

    There is no point being cheerfully optimistic in a "disaster". Which, for the lower mainland, this was. Of course, the ROC is a bit better prepared since they have a lot more experience with weather.

    Lessons learned at very little cost, which unfortunately means the average person won't learn much since they were only inconvenienced.

    BC Hydro, well I hope the update the plan(s) based on it could have been a heck of a lot worse.

    Of course, I'm safe in Victoria, and we never have weather....;-)

  2. I'm used to long power cuts (the longest was 7 days after a hurricane). The key to survival in such circumstances is to expect zero help from outside, understand the authorities will be disorganized and provide the wrong information, that prices for everything will go sky high, and that it's an excellent time to cook all the meat in the freezer and share it with the dogs.