Nfld. & Labrador

Advice for the next one: Here's what a disaster expert says N.L. can do better

After a deadly blizzard buried a chunk of Newfoundland and left people bewildered, stuck and scared, all kinds of officials stepped up in response. Here's what one expert would do differently next time.

Armed with the privilege of hindsight, SafetyNL looks at how emergency response should change

After over a week in a state of emergency after a record-breaking storm, there's a lot to examine. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

As the army departs and memories of January's week-long emergency fade from the minds of Avalon residents, some aspects of life after the blizzard still aren't the same.

Nor should they be, argues Len LeRiche, president of SafetyNL, a non-profit group that keeps an eye on risks threatening the province.

LeRiche has helped manage emergencies like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, and has words of wisdom for the communities now trying to pick up the pieces and prepare for next time.

Here's some of his advice.

Create a team

With the privilege of hindsight, LeRiche says it's important to look closely at how officials responded — and make changes to future emergency plans accordingly.

Chief among his concerns: co-ordinating emergency response between all levels of government, rather than relying on a sometimes-conflicting hodgepodge of commands and information.

That led to, for instance, confusion about whether St. John's pharmacies could open in a state of emergency, with the city saying one thing and the health department another.

Soldiers from CFB Gagetown were organized in metro St. John's via a central operations hub. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

"The problem arises when people aren't informed and they don't know what's happening," LeRiche said.

Putting together a co-ordinated emergency team, he suggested, could have avoided that while reflecting best practice elsewhere.

You need somewhere to work together

When the army showed up, they moved into their own operations centre to co-ordinate calls for help.

In LeRiche's view, that's not the same as having a dedicated space for public officials to work together to make decisions and relay information.

Instead, the region saw a splintered, decentralized approach to emergency management, with each municipality calling its own shots.

A provisional emergency operations centre opened in St. John's in a government building in the east end of St. John's, where military members organized and doled out tasks. Local governments had no such analog. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

"When you're doing planning, you don't do it in isolation of all the other communities and areas around you," he said. "Obviously there are interdependencies that we have to respond to."

LeRiche says the province might have participated a bit more in this situation, in order to knit together orders and information relay.

The provincial government ran its own emergency centre, and while St. John's has its own emergency operations centre, Mayor Danny Breen said it wasn't activated because communication with various channels such as city staff and first responders was able to be done over the phone.

"If we had opened the emergency operation centre and sent everyone to one place, first of all we wouldn't be able to get them there, and the resources to get them there would have been taken away from what the problem was at hand," he said.

Have a chain of command

Usually, LeRiche explained, there's a lead agent in emergency situations, depending on their type — for instance, a public safety department or a platoon chief at the scene of a fire.

When a city shuts down for a week, it's essential to make sure there's someone in charge, says LeRiche. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

At an emergency operations centre, there's usually a director who manages a team organized by their assignments. "You have people assigned with different tasks. There's quite a buzz of information going on in that centre."

With everything relayed to the relevant people in real time, the person in charge is in a better position to make decisions.

"There are frequent briefings that take place within the centre, so you know the director knows exactly what's going on," he said.

Breen said that having a more co-ordinated approach is something municipalities will want to discuss in time, but the focus now is still on cleaning up.  

"But it's a very difficult situation. I mean, if you're in a municipality where your streets are open and your residents in that municipality feel that they can move about, then there's going to be pressure on the municipality to lift the state of emergency, or relieve it somewhat," Breen said.

"When you have three municipalities here that are very close geographically people that live in those, they don't always see those boundaries."

A talking head isn't an expert

An information officer inside the centre would keep his or her finger on the pulse and update the public, he said.

"There may be a politician there. That's fine," LeRiche said. "But they're not the expert when it comes to what's taking place."

While the premier, relevant ministers, and mayors of the affected municipalities offered media cameras significant face time, they may not have been the most suitable ones for the job.

"You want to get information out to people, because if you don't, people are going to make up their own," he said. "And that's always a problem."

Breen said the city did what it could based on the needs of the residents.

"There's no book that you look up and see this is exactly what we've got to do in this situation," he said.

Using the opening of grocery stores as an example, Breen said telling residents to buy at least 48 hours' worth of food during the first day was necessary as the city didn't know what challenges it would face the following day, or when stores could open again.  

Don't do the same thing next time

After any emergency, officials should always examine what went right — but also determine weak spots, LeRiche says.

During a post-mortem, agencies can learn where the gaps are and look toward fixing them.

For instance, Premier Dwight Ball said last week he'd be looking at a possible mechanism to compensate workers who lose wages during a state of emergency, and the Town of Torbay said it'll be conducting an internal review to look at how it responded to the storm.

"We just can't put it on the shelf and hope that we never have to look at it," LeRiche warned. 

"There are always lessons learned from it."

Life is slowly returning to normal after this month's monster blizzard. (Francesca Swann/CBC)

Recovery roundup: 2 weeks later

With grocery store shelves now bursting with food, roads mostly clear of snow and parcels en route to mailboxes across the province, eastern Newfoundland has nearly reclaimed normalcy.

After nearly a fortnight of recovery, here's the latest on where the region stands.

  • Canada Post said 80 per cent of its mailboxes have been cleared, but all addresses in St. John's will have had mail delivered at least once by Friday, with older mail getting priority. 
  • The Town of Torbay reported Thursday that all roads, sidewalks and hydrants are clear.
  • Portugal Cove-St. Philip's has cleared all roads, sidewalks and hydrants, and has moved toward widening and clearing some sight lines.
  • The City of St. John's says about 3,000 hydrants are clear as of Thursday morning, with the rest to be dug out by the end of the week.
  • The Town of Paradise says all streets have been widened, and almost all fire hydrants have been cleared by a private contractor with help from residents in the early stages. 
  • The City of Mount Pearl says all streets have been cleared and widened, with sidewalks cleared on all main roads. All fire hydrants are cleared and garbage collection has returned to its normal schedule. 
  • Parks Canada has reopened its Signal Hill and Cape Spear historic sites.
  • The Department of Municipal Affairs has begun assessing damages and requesting claims for financial assistance.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show


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