What is the role of city council during a natural disaster?

It was a scenario that shocked Marianne Alto into remembering that as an elected official, she’s responsible for the community.

It was a scenario that shocked Marianne Alto into remembering that as an elected official, she’s not only responsible for the well-being of her family, but also the community.

In 2011, Alto was faced with the difficult decision of what to do during a major catastrophic event in Victoria. Alto, along with several other councillors from municipalities across the region, convened to figure out what the next steps were.

First, she called her family to ensure they were safe. Then, she moved on to the more difficult responsibility of finding out the extent of the damage and what services and items residents needed. Next, mayor and councillors came together to make decisions with the best information available.

While this scenario was part of a workshop through a regional emergency management agency and not an actual event, it shocked Alto into remembering her role as a city councillor, should a catastrophic natural event ever hit Victoria.

“Having that experience, even though we all knew it was artificial, it really brought home that in addition to what you would usually prepare for as an individual and with your family, as an elected person, you also have responsibilities to the larger community,” said Alto, adding the day-long experience was very powerful.

“As a locally-elected person, sometimes you lose sight of that sense of obviously day-to-day, I make decisions that affect people’s lives, but in an emergency situation like that, it really comes home that you have a responsibility to really be a leader and make decisions that will affect people in general and in immediate and urgent situations.”

Victoria fire chief Paul Bruce recently reinforced what council and the mayor’s role would be in the event of a natural disaster, as part of the city’s emergency plan.

The plan can be activated during significant wind and winter storms, floods, fires or earthquakes. In more significant events, such as a major earthquake or tsunami, mayor or council are able to declare a state of local emergency, which would have to be accepted by the province.

During a state of local emergency, mayor and council have the ability to use land or personal property to reduce the effects of an emergency or disaster, control or prohibit travel, order an evacuation of both people and livestock, or fix price for or ration food, clothing, fuel, equipment, medical supplies and other essential supplies.

Coun. Ben Isitt said an emergency preparedness plan for the city is well overdue.

“Hopefully we have the staff in place so it can happen,” he said, noting the recent tug boat that ran a ground near Bella Bella recently. “The fact is that federal and provincial regulators have exposed the coast to unreasonable and unacceptable risk . . . As soon as elected officials know their role and let the public know, the better.”

There will be a table top exercise next month for council to clarify roles in the event of an emergency or disaster. However, Coun. Geoff Young said public education has to continue to keep this topic at the top of people’s minds.

“The biggest issue is keeping people interested in emergency preparedness when it’s not time for a disaster or emergency,” he said.

Some councillors also suggested the idea of providing households with an empty emergency preparedness box (similar to blue recycle boxes) to remind people to buy supplies — an idea Mayor Lisa Helps praised.

“It will hopefully be a trigger that’s really concrete and proactive. I think it’s definitely something we should do. It’s tangible, people can touch it,” she said.

This week marked Shake Out week, which teaches participants to stop, drop and cover during an earthquake.

 

 

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