49th Parallel staff transferred perishable frozen food from the store freezer into a reefer truck parked at the bak of the store. (submitted photo)

Storm batters 49th Parallel at busiest time of the year

Gerry Beltgens Special to the Chronicle

Ladysmith’s 49th Parallel Grocery chain took a major hit from the great windstorm that closed 2018.

Peter Richmond, his family and staff are still trying to sort out how much was lost and how much will be covered by insurance. He credits his amazing staff and management for working hard and long hours in the dark to save as much food as possible.

“I just want to thank them for going above and beyond, to limit our losses and restock the store as quickly as possible for Christmas Eve shopping,” he said. “We tried to be open as much as possible but without power there was only so much we could do.”

All four of the stores in Ladysmith, Chemainus, Cedar and Duncan were without power at one time. Duncan was back on line first but Chemainus remained without power for four days. Ladysmith and Cedar were without power for three days.

Lack of internet and phones made doing business much more difficult. All the stores were out at the same time so food could not be moved from one to another.

The same problem occurred with suppliers who were able to help out where they could but even major operations such as Quality Foods and Paradise Island were dealing with their own stores that were down.

Cold Star, the warehouse and refrigerated storage company with its big location in Cassidy was also without power.

The biggest challenge for Richmond was not knowing how soon the power would return.

“The combination of the extent of the damage and power outage and then the lack of clarity on when systems would be up created the perfect storm for us.” Richmond said, acknowledging the bad pun. “It was also the time when we carried the most inventory and it happened during our three most busy shopping days. It was a disaster for the 49th stores and for our customers.”

Soon after the first outage Hydro got local power back up but then a transformer blew, and with so many transformers needing replacing that meant they were really in trouble.

Staff worked in the dark with flashlights and headlamps to move food into a refrigerated truck and cold storage at the back of the store. But there was not enough room. Plus everytime the big freezer was opened it endangered all of the frozen food that was stored within.

Luckily the freezer was very efficient and normally kept at -20 degrees. By the time the power finally came on the temperature was still at -5.

There was much talk about backup generators for the stores but the cost is prohibitive. The generator that kept the lights on in Cedar was around $35,000 and that could not manage any freezers or other systems. A generator to power the Ladysmith store would be close to $250,000.00 and may never be needed again.

Richmond will be exploring options and may seek partnerships with other organizations on how to deal with emergency power in the future. He will also be meeting with BC Hydro to see how communications systems can improve in future emergencies.

“One of the big takeaways from this storm is how much more we need to be prepared for a big emergency,” said Richmond. “We all need to be looking at how were are able to cope with at least the first 24 hours and more likely the first 72 hours after a major incident. This storm has showed us that we are not ready for another big disaster.”

Richmond’s own home on Kitchener St is only about two blocks from the store and was without power for less than four hours.

Richmond wanted to emphasize how much he appreciated all of the help and support the stores received from staff, suppliers and their customers.

“All of the staff and suppliers pulled together. As the power stayed out is it was so hard to for all of us to see how much food was lost, “ he said. “We know that many of our customers also lost the contents of their fridge and freezers and we hope to put on a Stock the Freezer special soon.”

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