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Call it a disaster

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It’s amazing how quickly things disintegrate with even the slightest hint of disaster.

Not that we didn’t have adequate warning that the weekend’s snowstorms would create havoc — weather reports were calling for snow turning to freezing rain all week — but people just didn’t seem to believe it until they were in the ditch. They never do.

In the village, people trying to get back to Squamish and Vancouver mobbed the Greyhound buses, jostling for a spot near the front door and collapsing the usually orderly lines. They were cold and wet, as many of them had been waiting for hours. There was real panic that they were going to be left behind.

And then there were all the other people on the road who no doubt believed they had legitimate reasons for getting into their cars and driving during the storm. The thing is, all of those reasons seem kind of stupid the moment your bumper is embedded in the bumper of another car.

If you got in your car or truck and drove on Sunday night or Monday morning, you were part of the problem. The smart thing would have been to stay put and let the plows do their work. Instead, the highway had to be closed several times on Sunday night to give the tow trucks enough time to pull cars out of ditches and snowbanks, and let the plows catch up with the conditions.

On Monday I was amazed to see all the cars driving up the road to Spring Creek to drop their children off at school and daycare. I was also amazed by the volume of traffic on the highway, as people headed to work like it was any other day instead of the tail end of a minor disaster.

As a mountain town we somehow feel we’re above this kind of disaster, that we all know how to drive in the snow, that snow tires or four wheel drive is enough, that plowing is always prompt and perfect, that the buses still run on time. We’re wrong on all counts, and it’s time we acknowledge the fact that weather is boss in this town.

We have to take a little bit of personal responsibility and use our common sense. If the weather forecast calls for heavy snow on Saturday, go grocery shopping on Thursday. Make sure you have a household emergency kit with water, blankets, candles and everything else you might need if you’re stuck in the dark during a power outage. Most importantly, make no stupid errands during a snowstorm. Stay home. Or better yet put on your classic skis and snowshoes, or grab a toboggan — just leave the car at home.

If you own a business, maybe you should put your employees on call during storms so they can stay home if you need to close, or only call in employees that live in easy walking or bussing distance. If you run an office, call your employees and tell them to work from home, or just stay home until you say otherwise.

Schools should have opened to give kids with nowhere else to go an option for the day — providing they live in walking distance, and that the teachers live close enough to organize a few games or activities. But parents should know that it’s optional. If they can stay home with their kids (which would be easy if they didn’t have to go to work) then they wouldn’t have to drive their kids to school or to load them onto school buses that don’t have seatbelts.

If someone is from out of town, there should be a better way to share information with them — and special emergency rates at hotels to allow people to stay overnight. Squamish hotels were fully booked on Sunday night, mostly by people trying to get home to Vancouver and Seattle from Whistler. Those people should never have left Whistler.

The fact that Whistler can get a dozen of these storms every year doesn’t make it any less of a disaster. We need to call it what it is, and act accordingly by creating a response plan that kicks in when the conditions deteriorate or the forecast is bad. Someone should be empowered to look at the data and make the call, which would allow a disaster response plan to kick in.

Close the highway early, and at regular intervals to let the plows move back and forth. Check for chains. Turn people back. Encourage people to stay, or, if they live in the corridor, to stay home. Close non-essential businesses. For people who have to travel, keep the municipal buses running along the highway only and ignore the subdivisions until they’re safe to go into. Designate a place to go, like the conference centre, where visitors can stay warm, wait for the highway and get the latest information. Don’t sell people bus tickets, sell them tickets with numbers so they know where they are in line and don’t have to push and shove their way to the front in a mad panic. Designate someone in the municipality as a disaster response coordinator to assemble all the information coming in from highway crews, emergency services, Environment Canada, and the public to give regular updates over the radio and Internet for both visitors and residents.

Visitors won’t only judge their experience in Whistler by the value and customer service during their stay, but also by their experience getting here and getting home. Let’s make it a good experience.