Phone and plowing complaints in Inverness County in storm's wake

The warden of Inverness County says people were put in "bad situations" during last week's storm when they were left with no access to emergency services.

No 911 service and impassable roads put residents in 'bad situations,' says Warden Betty Ann MacQuarrie

A crew working on a line last week in Inverness County. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

The warden of Inverness County says too many people in the rural Cape Breton municipality were left with no access to emergency services during last week's snow and windstorm, and municipal council wants action.

At council's regular meeting Tuesday, several councillors were upset about both the loss of phone services — and in one case, water services — as well as what they said was a lack road clearing.

"People were put in bad situations, there's no doubt about it," said Warden Betty Ann MacQuarrie.

As many as 8,500 people lost their power in Inverness County in extremely high winds.

MacQuarrie said a potentially dangerous situation developed in Mabou, where a downed tree cut off power to the pumping station for the village's water system. She said Nova Scotia Power did not immediately recognize the seriousness of the situation.

"They had their priorities set and perhaps didn't initially realize the emergency situation that was here," she said. "If there had been a fire, the local fire department depend on that water supply."

The province's Emergency Management Office became involved and power was restored to the pumping station within several hours.

A power crew at work in Mabou, N.S. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

The loss of phone service was problematic, too. MacQuarrie said some areas of her county have no cellphone coverage.

"We all think, 'Oh gosh, there's going to be a power outage, we should charge our cellphones,'" she said. "But the people in these rural areas, they depend on their landline. That's their connection to 911 if they have to call for any kind of emergency response."

Marc Choma, the director of communications for Bell Canada, said the company has been working with county administrators on the issue over the past couple of years, "but the business case for expanded wireless coverage in an area of low population density is a challenge."

Choma said the hilly terrain in parts of Inverness County is also a hindrance.

'People can't be put in danger'

Even if people could phone 911 during the storm, MacQuarrie said emergency vehicles could not reach them in many cases because of unplowed roads.

"In the last 10 years or so, there have been cutbacks, whether it be equipment or staff," the warden said. "They seem to be running their operations on a more streamlined budget, but when it comes to people not being serviced the way they should be, then we would have to say, 'Well, maybe you should put a little more money into it.'"

The Department of Transportation denies it has cut equipment or staff in Inverness County. Spokesperson Marla MacInnis said equipment levels are based on the same standard applied across the province.

The warden said council wants to meet with the minister of transportation and EMO to talk about improving services.

"It's all these services combined," MacQuarrie said. "It's rural areas that, you know, that don't necessarily make it to the top of the list, in line for services. There has to be a solution of some kind.

"People can't be put in danger."