The initial crisis of the ice storm of 2013 has now passed, but important lessons need to be taken from it to ensure that the next time a damaging storm hits this city residents will be better prepared. This is necessary because, make no mistake, people who study weather and climate change assert a pattern of increasing extremes.
Our public systems are being shown up for where weaknesses are when such emergencies inevitably occur, so how unprepared are we? One big complaint from people left days on end without electricity and therefore without heat in falling temperatures was that they could not get through by phone to Toronto Hydro. After the crisis, Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines admitted there is a need for more customer accessibility to register emergencies.
Beyond the ice storm, we were hit with even more of the frozen stuff and record-breaking extremes. With temperatures already well below normal for this time of year, the aging fleet of current streetcars malfunctioned in the freezing temperatures leaving commuters waiting for streetcars well past the seven to 10 minutes it would take for exposed skin to freeze.
Well, yes, we know we are in Canada and that it gets cold at this time of year, but that is precisely the reason we need to be better prepared.
During the crisis, too many seniors were left in the cold and dark in their homes, not knowing what was going on and when their lives would return to normal. We need to have community plans in place to ensure their safety. We cannot rely completely on the city to respond. The city’s emergency protocol may never be enough when an estimated 500,000 suddenly face a crisis.
With that understanding, neighbourhoods need to set up their own volunteer response plan. A first priority has to be to ensure that seniors and the most vulnerable are in contact with others who can let them know what is happening and what rescue and security plans are in place if whatever emergency it is worsens.
If matters grow worse as they did in the ice storm aftermath when the hours without electricity lengthened into days, there has to be an agreed meeting place where those who most need assistance can be gathered. In high-rises, that could be the building’s lobby or special meeting room. And further, plan for transporting those in need to other safer and warmer locations. We cannot have a repeat of the situation where people wanting to provide help call the police or other services and are told essentially, ‘you’re on your own’.
Toronto became a laughing stock when in the great snowstorm of 1999, then Mayor Mel Lastman called in the army to help the city cope, even so it would be necessary for able-bodied volunteers to get involved in moving people to safety.
It is reassuring that during the recent crisis, warming centres were up and running in short order, but without a working radio or television, isolated individuals would not know about them.
Beyond ensuring the safety of neighbours, each household must be prepared. Without electricity and heat, that means maintaining a good in-home supply of food that does not require cooking, so a week’s supply of canned food, dried fruit, crackers and similar types of provisions must be ready. Also, a battery powered or windup radio, bottled water, flashlights, batteries and candles. Keep an amount of cash nearby in a place where it will not be touched except for such an emergency because even some stores, especially small neighbourhood convenience stores, may not have electricity and would not be able to run cash registers or take debit or credit cards. If you haven’t already done so, plan to purchase warming blankets that would normally be used for camping, the kind that are good for up to -40 Celsius. If your home has a fireplace, make sure it is serviceable. That also means keeping a solid supply of wood or commercial fireplace logs on hand. Identify a place where you can cook safely so that if you decide to use charcoal, for instance, you do not end up in desperation doing so indoors. If possible, buy a propane tank and keep it in a garage or someplace safe.
If you were caught unprepared this time, take an accounting of what you did right and what didn’t work, because you can be sure there will be a next time.