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Home Emergency Preparedness

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Last year around this time, I covered how to winterize your home against the wet, windy weather we get on Vancouver Island and the west coast. That article was published just as Victoria experienced strong wind storms which took out the power in several places around the city.

This year we've already seen an incredible amount of rainfall in Victoria BC, thanks in part to Hurricane Matthew. Some areas in Sooke received instructions and supplies for sandbagging their homes against potential floods. When facing conditions like this, it's easy to see that sometimes winterizing isn't enough on its own.

How can you ensure the safety of your home and family when nature is at its worst? We can't prevent every disaster, but there are things you can do when looking for a new home, or as a home owner readying for the winter, to better your chances.

Know Your Risks

When choosing a new home or preparing to stormproof your current home, it's important to assess your individual level of risk. Different factors can increase your chances of running into trouble or coming to harm during an emergency, and you should be aware of them and be able to plan for them accordingly.

Property Risks

Property risks can include locational features such as flood plains, land erosion, shifting rivers, elevation levels, slope stability, outdated dams, and more. Flooding is a danger in many areas of Greater Victoria, often triggered by heavy spring thaws or long periods of rainfall. Older homes are also more at risk for structural damage or weakness if they haven't been properly maintained.

If you're buying a home, check with your real estate agent regarding the property location in relation to these risks. Identify any dikes, dams, or other flood control structures that are protecting your property via the BC Dam Safety Program, and find out whether they're still being maintained. Inquire about local building bylaws, subdivision approvals, and planning and regulations around floodplains and other hazards. Compare the age of your chosen house — was it built before these regulations came into effect?

If you're having a home built, avoid construction next to steep slopes, mountain edges, drainage ways, or erosion valleys — a qualified professional should conduct a ground assessment of your lot to determine the best location.

For those staying put, you can identify existing risks to your home by reviewing your local hazard maps for flood plains, tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides and debris flows near your property, as well as in areas that you often visit. Keep in mind that documents may not be accurate: in 2003, responsibility for flood plain mapping was changed from the provincial government to local governments, and many maps haven't been updated since then (or even earlier). Check with your municipality.

Personal Risks

Personal risks can include mobility limitations (such as the need for a cane or a walker), language barriers, medical requirements and dependencies, visual impairment, and needing personal support for day to day independent living. If you're home hunting, make sure to inform your Realtor about any of these issues so they can take them into account when finding you a home.

The City of Victoria has a number of guides and resources on how to prepare for emergencies when you have increased personal risk. Have a look through them and note their recommendations. They may have an impact on your choice of home layout or location when buying, or on what you put into your emergency kit and escape plans.

Know Your Options

During a storm or other emergency you might not be able to drive or rely on roads. Only two feet of rushing water will carry away most vehicles, so never try to drive through it! Landslides and dangerous debris can also close both minor and major roads, and major roadways might be closed as disaster response routes.

Disaster Response Routes

Disaster response routes are traffic routes dedicated to emergency workers, so they can bring supplies and services to affected areas as quickly as possible. DRR routes will have signs posted stating that they are not to be used by the public during emergency or disaster situations. They are not evacuation routes. When a disaster response route is activated by the authorities, you'll be expected to stay off those roads. (If you're already on a route when an emergency is declared, exit it at the earliest safe opportunity to make way for emergency personnel.)

Victoria's major disaster response routes lie along the Pat Bay Highway and the Trans-Canada Highway. It's a good idea to keep a printed copy of the map in your car as a reminder of which roads you won't be able to access. The map also notes important evacuation gathering spots.

Know who you can call for help.

Urgent life-threatening emergencies should be reported to 911, but it pays to have a list of numbers for other service providers in your area. Make sure you know the non-emergency numbers for your area's fire, police, hydro, gas, phone and cable companies, and update them when you move to a home in a new neighbourhood. Keep the numbers somewhere easy to find — you may not have the internet or Google to rely on if the power goes out.

Know where you can go for shelter.

If your home becomes unlivable or you're commanded to evacuate, you'll need to know where to go. Find out if neighbours, friends or family are able to take you in if your home suffers a minor disaster, and check your local municipality's emergency shelter locations (also known as Reception Centres) in case of a larger catastrophe. Many emergency teams will run Reception Centre Exercises to practice their evacuation processes, so ask if you can talk to them or sit in on an exercise to get an idea of what will be going on.

Learn about available safety services.

When risk of flooding is high, local fire stations and other locations will often provide sandbag materials to help protect houses. Ask your local departments if they offer this or other emergency services. Keep in mind that supply can be limited when many houses are threatened at once, and acquiring your own materials beforehand can make things easier for you and others. For more details on how to construct a sandbag dyke, visit the BC Ministry of Environment or watch this sandbagging tips video.

Have A Plan

With your risks and options in mind, come up with a multi-stage emergency plan: a primary plan with as many backup plans as you think you may need.

Picture the situation you might be dealing with: blocked roads, closed stores and gas stations, and down or disrupted phone lines, electricity, water, and gas. Your children may be at school, you might be away at work, or you might have pets. It could be weeks before services are restored. What do you do?

Prepared BC offers a downloadable Household Emergency Plan you can fill in with the information you'll need, including:

  • How to turn off utilities
  • Out of town emergency contacts
  • Nearby emergency service providers
  • Several (safe and walkable) household meeting spots in case you get separated
  • Someone you trust to collect your children from school if you can't
  • Safety steps to take
  • Location of grab-and-go bags and emergency kits (at home, work, and in the car)

Flood waters move fast and trees fall in an instant, so make sure everything is clear and ready to go at all times. Try practicing your plan until everyone in your household is comfortable with it.

Talk To Your Neighbours

Whether you live on a street or in a strata, neighbours can be one of your biggest assets during an emergency. If you're considering moving into a new neighbourhood, look around the area and say hi to the local homeowners. If you're already settled, organize a Preparedness Get-Together around a BBQ or potluck. Start invitations with any local networks you may already have, like a strata council or Block Watch group.

The BC government has a great collection of guides called In it Together: Neighbourhood Preparedness for both freehold and strata owners. They can help you organize your get-together and arrange discussions around topics like:

  • Neighbours with unique needs (who may need extra help)
  • Skills and resources (who has first-aid skills, construction skills, a generator)
  • Important contact persons (landlords, strata corporations, wardens)
  • Documenting participating homes and a safe meeting point
  • Water, gas and electricity mains, and where they can be turned off
  • Other key resources or vulnerabilities identified in your planning

The guide recommends you assign responsibilities throughout the group and arrange for an annual repeat of the meetup. Keep the momentum going by staying friendly with your neighbours. Offer support during times of need or life changes, such as new babies, recent deaths, or home renovations. Welcome new neighbours by taking over a tray of cookies or bottle of wine, or invite them over for a meal.

Identify someone to organize a get-together to review and update your neighbourhood or building's plan each year, and remember to review your insurance and refresh your emergency kit annually.

Make Or Check Your Emergency Kit

When widespread disasters happen, emergency responders might not be able to reach you right away due to high call volumes. BC residents are encouraged to keep an emergency kit with enough supplies to sustain everyone in their household for up to 7 days in the event of an emergency.

When preparing for stormy weather and wind warnings in particular, keep the following close by:

  • Flashlights
  • Blankets
  • Battery-powered portable radio
  • Spare batteries
  • Fully-charged cell phone

Radio stations will broadcast emergency information to keep residents informed of any disasters. Tune in, and keep your supplies somewhere they can be easily found in the dark.

You can prepare more thorough emergency kits using Prepare Victoria's Recipe For Disaster lists. These are great checklists that you can use to assemble a kit for all kinds of locations. Give them a look:

You can also attend a free Emergency Preparedness Workshop in your area and pick up tips on how to put your kit together, how to safely store drinking water, and other important details.

Secure Your Home

Everyone has an important role to play in keeping their community safe during heavy storms. As a property owner, you're expected to lend a hand to city services by staying on top of the following:

  • Keep sidewalks, gutters, drains, and storm grates free of leaves to prevent clogging and flooding. Don't rake your leaves on or towards the street or into drains. Find where the storm drain is on your street and remove any obstructions.
  • When raking, put your leaves in clear 100% compostable bags. These degrade and also help prevent flooding.
  • Check your property or business for anything that might be blown around or torn loose. Put away or secure things like garbage cans, lawn furniture, ladders, retractable canopies, and building materials. In a strong storm these can injure people and damage property.
  • Trim any dead or damaged tree branches you spot on your property to reduce the risk of them falling on people or vehicles during a storm.
  • If driving or cycling during a storm, be careful of areas with large leafy trees, and large puddles in curb lanes and low areas like the bottom of hills. Reduce your speed to minimize the risk of an accident.

There are also a number of steps you can take to protect your home specifically:

  • Get a quote from an insurance agent on flood insurance for your home, and keep an inventory of your personal belongings.
  • Hire a roof contractor before the winter rains set in and reveal loose gutters, damaged shingles, broken flashing, and other leak risks the hard way.
  • Improve stormwater management with some simple landscaping in a rain garden.
  • Have your chimney inspected to prevent structural fires and the buildup of poisonous gases.
  • Take the time to winterize your home to maximize heat and energy savings while minimizing the risk of water damage.
  • Regularly clean your gutters, check your downspout anchors, and maintain your perimeter drains, ensuring that they send their water a proper distance from your home.
  • During the wetter, windier months, try to avoid parking under trees or hydro wires to reduce the risk of damage to your vehicle.

If you're already facing the threat of a flood or heavy winds, you can help protect yourself and your belongings by:

  • Parking vehicles away from streams and waterways
  • Anchoring any fuel supplies
  • Keeping away from windows, doors, and fireplaces
  • Avoiding the use of landline telephones
  • Moving electrical appliances to upper floors
  • If you're driving, stopping in an area away from any trees, power lines, or waterways and staying put

If the situation is severe enough, consider withdrawing to the shelter listed in your emergency plan, and remember to always listen to local officials if you are asked to evacuate. (And bring your emergency kit with you!)

Check In On Environment Canada

Knowing when to get out your emergency kit and secure your belongings is almost as important as knowing how to. If it looks like severe weather is looming on the horizon, pull up Environment Canada. They issue statements, watches, warnings, and other important alerts regarding the weather, usually anywhere from 6 to 24 hours in advance. If heavy rains or a tsunami are heading your way, they'll be the ones to notify you.

If you have a personal smartphone, search your app store for weather alert apps using Environment Canada data, and you'll get an automatic notification when dangerous weather is heading your way. Some apps to try are Canada Weather & Radar for Android, and Weather Office for Apple.

Tune Into Twitter

Once your kit is complete, you've secured your home, and you're hunkered down with blankets and a flashlight, tune in to social media. Victoria has a strong Twitter community, and most local emergency and transportation services use it to make real-time announcements. Some important accounts and hashtags to follow include:

A map of southern Vancouver Island Twitter accounts for police, fire, and emergency management can be found here. You can also follow @PreparedBC for helpful emergency preparedness tips and announcements.

Remember, there will be a lot of rumour and speculation flying around the internet during an emergency. When it comes to safety you should base your decisions on announcements from official organizations and news sources.

Be Vigilant

You should be aware of your surroundings on your property and while dangerous weather is ongoing. Some things to keep an eye out for:

  • Take note of trees beginning to bend or lean near your home, or any new or spreading cracks in nearby hillsides. Consult an engineer or report them to your local city authorities.
  • Get to know your watershed and any creeks or other water sources near your property, so you can learn to identify changes in the water flow that could mean a problem upstream. If you see a fast surge or drop in the water level, a change in water colour, or an increase in the amount of debris, contact your local police, fire, or public works department.
  • Report any water pooling in the streets, hazardous debris, fallen branches, or downed trees by calling Victoria city services at 250-361-0400.
  • If the power lines look intact but the power is out, report the outage by calling *HYDRO (*49376) on your cell, or 1-800-BCHYDRO (1-800-224-9376) or 1-888-POWERON (1-888-769-3766) on your landline. You can find a list of known outages online at the BC Hydro website.
  • Help any neighbours you can see struggling with disability, small children, or other difficulties.
  • Stay away from any landslide sites you come across. Secondary slides can happen and catch you unaware.
  • Watch out for flooding if a landslide occurs in your area. Breaks in the earth can cause waterways to shift.
  • Call 911 right away if you see a downed power line or smell natural gas (which often smells like rotten eggs), and evacuate the immediate area.
  • Count the seconds after a flash of lightning until you hear thunder. If you hear it less than 30 seconds after the lightning, look for shelter. If it's less than five seconds after the lightning, take shelter right away wherever you can.
  • Evacuate immediately if you hear faint rumbling that increases in volume, or unusual sounds like trees cracking and boulders knocking together.

Pitch In!

Finally, remember that most municipalities need to rely on volunteers in an emergency. Even with our dedicated first responders, most city emergency preparedness is based upon the work of residents who volunteer their time and labour in the case of a crisis.

Look up emergency program groups in your area and sign up to learn and help. Emergency support programs are meant to help residents help themselves by preparing for any disaster that could tie up professional responders and leave members of the community vulnerable for 72 hours or more. Learn more about volunteering with Victoria Emergency Management, donating or volunteering with Victoria Emergency Weather Protocol and local emergency shelters, or volunteering with the Saanich Emergency Program.

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