As we enjoyed the first summer long weekend, I was reminded of the summer heat dome two years ago.
At that time, I was serving as the health critic, and I spent the weekend on the phone with exhausted paramedics, advocates for seniors and emergency room doctors, who were sharing their horrific experiences.
The headlines started to tell the stories that were experienced, with more than 619 British Columbians losing their lives as a direct result of the heat. These were mostly seniors, lower socio-economic people and most lived alone. The tragedy served as a stark reminder of the human cost of inadequate planning and delayed response.
A coroner’s report described the lack of a coordinated effort from the government and (recommended) several immediate action items.
Heatwaves and heat domes are not new, and while their intensity may be exacerbated by climate change, our lack of preparedness cannot be justified. The government hasn’t implemented any of the coroner’s recommendations.
Did the U.S. have the same heat wave? It did. But instead of waiting to react, it sounded the alarm, broadcast the dangers, had emergency crews ready, cooling stations open, and a check-in system was in operation. All while the B.C. government did absolutely nothing.
In the following years, our neighbours to the south quickly implemented plans and programs that distributed more than 23,000 air conditioning units to vulnerable populations, providing immediate relief to those most susceptible to the effects of extreme heat. B.C. also faces this urgent need, but a comparable plan wasn't launched until June of this year.
When we compare B.C.’s response to that of our American counterparts, the stark contrast underscores the fatal consequences of delayed action. The 23,000 air conditioning units distributed by American authorities underscore the possibilities for effective intervention. Those A/C units provide essential relief and potentially save many lives.
Meanwhile, people of B.C. have been left to deal with the soaring temperatures for two years, without adequate protection or resources. By the time the government finally implemented a plan, it was already too late for hundreds of (people). Delayed responses in times of crisis are not just a matter of inefficiency, it costs lives.
What's more, the response came without a comprehensive plan for the future. The heat dome in 2021 is unlikely to be an isolated event, with our meteorologists predicting a hot dry summer (this year). But there seems to be no strategy in place to prevent similar catastrophes in the years to come.
The tragic event (two years ago) serves as a painful lesson we must heed. We cannot allow ourselves to be caught off guard again. Instead of reactive measures, what we need is proactive planning and policies that are ready to be executed at the first sign of a heatwave.
First, we must establish a plan for the quick and efficient distribution of air conditioning units and other cooling aids to those most at risk in our communities. The health minister announced a plan last week that barely scratches the surface of what is required and does it inefficiently and over three years. That’s three more years of waiting for people who desperately need these air conditioners.
The state of Oregon is spending $400 on each of their supplied and installed units, where in B.C. that cost is $1,250. How is that possible?
Second, we should also invest in infrastructure improvements that make our homes and public buildings more heat resistant. That could include better insulation, green roofing, and other heat mitigating measures.
Third, we should have check-in programs, where social workers, volunteers or other community members regularly check in on vulnerable individuals, such as the elderly or disabled, during a heat wave.
And finally, we must engage in public education campaigns about the risks of extreme heat events and how to stay safe. Every (resident) should know what to do in the event of a heatwave, and should have access to a cool, safe space when temperatures soar.
While we cannot change what has already happened, we can and must do everything in our power to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. The people of B.C. deserve better.
Let's learn from the past and work toward a safer and more prepared future.
My question to you is this:
How would you like the provincial government to respond to public emergencies, like heat domes?
I love hearing from you and I read every response. Email me at [email protected] or call the office at 250-712-3620.
Renee Merrifield is the BC United MLA for Kelowna-Mission.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.