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The Worst Windstorm in BC Hydro’s History

An excerpt from The Tyee’s new book full of BC stories, ‘Points of Interest.’

Sofia Osborne 19 Apr 2024The Tyee

Sofia Osborne is a freelance writer, editor and audio producer, currently completing her MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia.

[Editor’s note: The Tyee is over the moon to share that we’ve partnered with Greystone Books to publish ‘Points of Interest,’ an anthology that marks our 20-year anniversary by collecting 30 powerful, funny, beautiful place-based essays that take readers on an eclectic literary road trip through B.C.

Points of Interest’ will be released and available for sale in bookstores starting April 23. Vancouver readers are invited to join us to celebrate at our book launch, held that same day, at Steamworks — it’s free. The event is at capacity, but you can register for our waitlist via Eventbrite.

Below, we’re sharing the final of three excerpts from the book: Sofia Osborne on surviving — both physically and emotionally — the worst windstorm in BC Hydro’s history.]

I wake early. The walls are shaking. It sounds like the rest of the house has melted away, like my room is a ship in a storm. How can the wind be so loud? How can it rush through the walls like a sieve? I run down the stairs in the chill.

My dad’s in the living room, his weathered face staring out the window at the sea. He chose this house on the east tip of Saturna Island for the seclusion and the view: the ocean and the San Juan Islands, the rocky cliff.

Together we watch the waves, so choppy they’re stark white, tangle on the rocks. Mariners would call this a force 10. Later, I find out today marks the worst windstorm in BC Hydro’s history. To me, it’s the day I realize I could be blown off my feet.

My dad points to my cup on the table, the water inside it rippling. “The house is shaking,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Are you worried?” I ask.

“No,” he replies quickly. “It’s stood through so many storms.”

Here’s what we don’t yet know: the wind is blowing over 100 kilometres an hour, swirling to hit us from three directions. It won’t stop for eight hours. The Gulf Islands will be the hardest hit. The shifting winds, high speeds and 400 millimetres of rain that fell over the last few weeks has created the perfect stew of conditions to uproot even healthy trees.

By the afternoon the power is out. The inverter for the backup battery isn’t working and we’re not sure why. My dad’s solar panels are still hooked up to the grid, so they’re no use to us now. We have no internet, no phone, no cell service. We are as far away from the ferry terminal as possible, as my dad preferred. He’s only lived here four years; he’s seen storms before, but they weren’t like this.

We’re supposed to leave the island to go to Vancouver for Christmas and have a reservation on the 4:30 ferry. Is it running? We have no idea. But we have nothing better to do than drive over to the terminal with our suitcases, just in case.

While we pack, my dad says, “You know, I really admire how calm you’re being about all this. It’s very grown-up.”

“There’s no use panicking,” I say, carefully filling my water bottle only halfway — we’re rationing what remains of the water pressure.

As soon as I get outside, I’m shoved off balance, nearly knocked to the ground. The sky is blue, beautiful, but the trees are sideways. I look at my dad but we don’t say anything. As we roll out of the driveway, we see Cliffside Road; the pavement is a lawn of evergreen needles. A minefield of branches and downed power lines. The car crunches over them. “Don’t worry,” my dad says hesitantly. “There’s no power.” It’s a calculated risk. I close my eyes, hold my breath before the tires make contact.

This is the only road to the rest of the island, the ferry terminal, civilization. It’s so narrow that what should be one lane is split in two, snaking between a cliff and the ocean. We drive on like this, my dad’s hands at 10 and 2, knuckles white. My eyes are on the lines on his forehead, the way he squints in focus, then on the treetops above us that pitch back and forth.

My dad calls this road “The Cathedral” for the way the arbutuses arch over the pavement. Usually, when we pass under them, I feel transported to a world where life moves slower and there’s nothing more important than the beauty of this island. Where the stress of life in Vancouver is cleansed to nothing. That’s the feeling my dad was chasing when he moved here after he retired from law and teaching. The life he wanted when he put up his solar panels and bought his electric car. That’s the life I want too, a lot of the time.

Now the cathedral is closing in on us. The trees lie in pieces on the road, jutting out like javelins.

We’re getting close to the main route that will take us the length of Saturna, East Point Road. The sky is fading and the trees are no longer trees, just black ghosts. As we lose the light, I lose any hope of getting off the island.

How could the ferries be running? How had we ever thought they might be? It’s then that we reach the final obstacle: a tree lying definitively across the road, blocking our path. My dad swears. “There’s no way the ferry is running anyway,” I say quietly.

“Well, we can’t get to it now.” He turns the car around.

On the way back, I notice every toppled tree that wasn’t there before. They’re everywhere. The car, which had felt safe, is now a slowly moving target. The wind catches up to us and we get blocked again; another tree hovering too low over the pavement. We’re fenced in.

“Now what?” My question hangs limp, quickly blown away.

My dad stares at the downed tree like he can lift it back up with the strength of his convictions. He opens the car door, gets out, pulls at the tree branches to try to break them, to create a tiny hole we can slither through, but they barely bend. I watch his body twist with the effort and I think of his back, how he threw it out just a month ago, how sore he’ll be tomorrow.

“Come on,” I call out to him. “We won’t fit anyway. Can we find someone with a chainsaw?”

We do: John, whose family has lived on the island for so long there’s a road named after them, and Karen, a carpenter and cabinetmaker who installed my dad’s new floors, are out roaming the roads in their trucks. They’re taking the downed trees apart meticulously — mid-storm — and marking them with fluorescent orange tape. Karen lives out our way; she’ll take us back, my dad says. We meet more trees along the road, and as my dad and Karen cut through the thick trunks and pull at the pieces, I sit frozen in the passenger seat, feeling trapped.

When we’re a few houses away from home, Karen peels off down her road and my dad starts talking about how lucky we are. The adrenalin is radiating off him, but all I feel is wary. We’re by our neighbour’s house, close to home but chainsaw-less, when we see the biggest trees of all blocking our way.

“We can leave the car here,” my dad says slowly, “grab the suitcases and crawl under the trees. It’s not a long walk.”

God, no, I think.

A pair of headlights appears through the gaps in the tree trunks.

“Let me see who it is,” my dad says.

When he leaves the car, I lose it. It starts with hyperventilation, then breathless sobs. The forest is so tall on both sides of me and the roots that I thought were so sturdy now seem so fragile. They could give way and a tree could just crush me, and all I would see, if I saw anything, would be the trunk racing toward me. If I was lucky I’d die instantly, but it’s just as likely a branch would puncture me and I would bleed out, waiting for medical attention — how would a helicopter even be able to fly in this storm? They’d never get me to the hospital; I’d die a slow death. I’m choking on my sobs by the time my dad comes back to the car.

He’s excited. It’s Jeremiah and his chainsaw. Then he sees my face. “Oh, oh no, sweetie.” He looks down at me. “It’s OK, it’s OK, we’re almost home.” He closes the door to go help, leaving me alone to fill the car with panicked tears.

It feels like both seconds and years until Jeremiah finishes hauling away the blockade. I watch him work and I think about how he’s just a year or two older than me, but he’s coming alive while I’m shrinking. As we pass him — he’s going off to find more trees to conquer — my dad rolls down the passenger window to say thank you again, and I hide my tear-streaked face in my jacket sleeve. When we get home, I lie on the couch in my parka, hood up. I can’t say anything as my dad apologizes to me. “It’s OK that you felt scared. It’s completely understandable.”

We get off the island the next day. There’s a four-sailing wait at Swartz Bay, even with the extra boats. My dad won’t go back to Saturna until after New Year’s; his power will be out for eight days; his leftovers will go rancid in the freezer. His phone won’t come back online until mid-January.

In Vancouver I watched the news roll in: boats broke loose in White Rock, crashing through the pier and leaving a man stranded on the other side. The generator for Nanaimo’s water plant failed, putting it out of commission for 12 hours. I thought about all the stories I’ll never hear: each of the 756,000 people who lost power, who had to change their Christmas plans, who had trees puncture their roofs or crush their cars, who realized how little they could control. Did they feel as small as I did in the face of the storm?

Most of them got their power back in the first 24 hours. But there were people in remote areas, like my dad and me, who took days and days to reach. In some places, BC Hydro had to send helicopters out to survey the damage because the roads were impassable.

Almost 2,000 spans of wire came down in the storm — 500 on Salt Spring alone. Hydro had to deal with 5,800 trouble calls; an average storm sees 300.

It was the “storm of the century, one for the history books” — except it won’t be.

The climate is changing. While storm frequency is hard to project, the number of storms BC Hydro has responded to has tripled in the last five years, and the number of customer outages during major storms has increased alongside at a similar pace.

My dad has a chainsaw now, tucked in the back of his trunk. I get scared when I think of him using it, at 70 years old, out in the wind and the sideways rain, hacking away. But he is a superhero, and of course he would want to help his community.

When I think about my dad on Saturna, I think about how untenable his situation could get as the storms get worse and worse, and he gets older. He thinks about this too, but he’s doubled down. He loves this place; it’s home. If he could go back and change his mind, he wouldn’t, he told me. I know my dad; he takes risks for the things he loves. That scares me too.

My dad will be more prepared next time. He’ll have a backup to his backup system, enough food and water to last for weeks, and, of course, the chainsaw. Maybe he’ll work toward going completely off the grid — in case of apocalypse. And I’ll worry every time I call him and get the busy signal of a dead phone.

Points of Interest’ is out from Greystone Books on April 23.  [Tyee]

Read more: Books, Environment

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