Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

We had a stunning blizzard — but no Emergency Measures Organization

The old, dismanled Emergency Measures Organization was nowhere to be seen during the blizzard and its recovery, as the N.L. government pushed decisions to municipalities, writes John Gushue.

The old Emergency Measures Organization was nowhere to be seen during the storm and its recovery

Two residents stroll down New Gower St. in St. John’s on Jan. 18. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

If you go to the Newfoundland and Labrador government's web page for emergency services and click on News Releases, you get a 404. That is, an empty page, an error.

By the way, the stream of news releases, advisories, statements and other material that one might have expected to see from Emergency Services doesn't exist on some other part of the government's website.

It doesn't exist at all.

In fact, to the surprise of some people, what used to be called EMO — the Emergency Measures Organization; you may remember former commissioner Fred Hollett as the voice of government emergency response for many years — is gone in name if not in function. What's left is now part of the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment.

Apart from what was said on Twitter or in front of media microphones, there has been precious little said, at least in an official capacity,  on behalf of the entire government.

There's no criticism for the first responders and the others who dealt with the crisis — everyone from firefighters to phone operators, plow operators to utility workers — and the hefty burdens they carried. Some of them put their own safety on the line, especially in the most challenging hours. 

The bigger problem is the absence of co-ordination. This blizzard has exposed some remarkable weaknesses within the provincial government, as well as how well municipalities were able to work together … or not.

Little official information released

First, let's look at the Newfoundland and Labrador government's website. On Jan. 16, the day before the storm, government issued an advisory about storm preparation. Believe it or not, the government did not post a single news release for seven days. On Thursday, we were given a heads-up that Premier Dwight Ball would have something to say.

A resident heads back to his home after chatting with workers as they continue to remove snow from the streets in St. John’s earlier this week. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Ball, of course, did talk to the media during the intervening days — as well he should have.

So did Municipal Affairs and Environment Minister Derrick Bragg. Bragg has come across as concerned, but it's also obvious that he is just a few months into his first cabinet job.

What's been missing from the provincial government is this: a sense that someone there is in charge, that there was a co-ordinated response out of the gate.

Instead, the government deferred to the individual municipalities. Surely the cities and towns are autonomous, but there was no single point of contact for them to go to, and the decision-making was hardly uniform.

St. John's Mayor Danny Breen has pointed out during the week that it has been frustrating to have a piecemeal approach to a problem that not only extended beyond metro-area boundaries, but which actually covered a large part of eastern Newfoundland. (The harshest winds, for instance, were felt in Bonavista.)

Soldiers from the 4th Artillery Regiment based at CFB Gagetown get help from a snowblower-equipped neighbour as they clear snow at a residence in St. John’s on Monday. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Other things have been exposed. For instance, the legislation governing states of emergency in St. John's is 35 years old. [A prior version of this column mistakenly said that the city's emergency plan documents were that old, and that is not accurate.]

But the biggest gap has to be at the provincial level. A number of us noted the absence of EMO or equivalent, especially in the early days of the blizzard and the aftermath.

Confusion, not co-ordination 

There was no obvious co-ordination, but we did have confusion. Independent MHA Paul Lane, whose district of Mount Pearl-Southlands straddles two cities, told us earlier this week about how confusing it was for him (presumably someone who himself would be fielding constituent calls) to figure out who was in charge of what.

We did not have someone like former EMO commissioner Fred Hollett, a fire commissioner who stepped seamlessly into the emergency measures role when required.

We had the City of St. John's saying pharmacies would close, and then we had Health Minister John Haggie saying they would open.

St. John's Mayor Danny Breen says was frustrated by a piecemeal approach to managing the state of emergency. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

We did not receive much technical information from a common source of authority. Instead, we needed to hunt it out — but more often had to rely on what a politician would tell us. (This is another stellar example, by the way, of the risk to the public's right to know that comes with the provincial government's stubborn habit of always having a politician handle interviews. Not that many years ago, we had access to subject experts. Now we must rely on non-experts and their ability to recall what they have been told.)

An emergency operations centre, set up in MCP's building on Major's Path, opened on Monday — three full days after the blizzard started, two days after the military was called in. Even then, it did not provide the single point of contact to guide the province. 

There are other gaps. The "frequently asked questions" section on the emergency services page is all about one subject: catastrophic flooding on the west coast, which happened two years ago. 

A provisional emergency operations centre opened in St. John's in an MCP building in the east end of St. John's. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

The government at least was present on Twitter. The Department of Transportation and Works had excellent updates in the early stages, and it was valuable. Other departments followed suit.

But as anyone who knows social media well can tell you, most Canadians never use Twitter. Many of the people who started an account don't use it. The audience for these tweets was not nearly as wide as people who love Twitter believe. 

As well, it's fair to assume that many of the vulnerable people who were dug out of their homes by Canadian Forces troops this week are older and not on social media. (Community volunteers reported that many seniors do not have internet access.) The government's communications strategy — if there was one — did not meet their needs.

The Emergency Services Act gives the provincial government the ability to call a regional emergency.

For whatever reason, the Ball government chose not to do this.

Contractors clear snow from the upper deck of a parking lot in St. John’s on Tuesday. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

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About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.


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