Toronto joins 100 Resilient Cities group to prepare for the next crisis

With the three-year anniversary of the 2013 Toronto ice storm approaching, the city is taking steps to improve how it responds to extreme weather events and other potential disasters.

Toronto looks to improve emergency preparedness in age of globalization and climate change

People walk past fallen ice-covered tree limbs along a road following the ice storm in Toronto, December 22, 2013. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

With the three-year anniversary of the 2013 Toronto ice storm approaching, the city is taking steps to improve how it responds to extreme weather events and other potential disasters.

"It was clumsy," Mayor John Tory said of certain aspects of the city's response to the storm that blanketed Toronto in a thick layer of ice and left hundreds of thousands of homes without hydro and heating.

"When you look back at the ice storm," Tory said on Thursday, "there were lots of things that didn't happen as well as they should have."

Tory singled out the grocery cards issued to replace the food families lost during the power outage. "We didn't really know how to distribute them. So there were people who were left in a very isolated way."

The mayor's remarks followed an event that formally marked Toronto's acceptance into 100 Resilient Cities, an initiative funded by the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation, dedicated to building "urban resilience" in cities around the world.

The objective is resilience to more than just ice storms.

100 Resilient Cities COO Elizabeth Mercer (100 Resilient Cities)

100 Resilient Cities was formed to respond to three major trends impacting cities: urbanization, globalization and climate change — trends that are causing both "acute shocks" and "chronic stresses."

The ice storm is one example of acute shocks, a category that includes fires, floods, extreme weather, an infectious disease outbreak, terrorism, riots or other natural and man-made disasters.

Chronic stresses are the day-to-day or cyclical challenges that "weaken the fabric of a city," such as inequality, inefficient public transportation, or endemic violence.

Mayor John Tory, right, receives a plaque from 100 Resilient Cities COO Elizabeth Mercer (CBC)

The chief operating officer of 100 Resilient Cities, Elizabeth Mercer, describes urban resilience as a city's "ability to grow and adapt and thrive no matter what acute shocks and chronic stresses they face."

How the organization helps cities do this begins with establishing a chief resilience officer (CRO).

Toronto has already begun searching for someone to fill this "innovative new position", according to a city news release.

It says the new CRO will "lead the city's resilience efforts and continue to engage stakeholders, resilience experts and 100 Resilient Cities staff."

A Toronto Hydro worker surveys the damage on a street near Kingston Road and Victoria Park Avenue in Toronto following an ice storm, on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. (Matthew Sherwood/Canadian Press)

The CRO position is funded by100 Resilient Cities for two years.

Mercer says during that period they will draft Toronto's resiliency strategy.

"That's an opportunity for the city to address where it's strong and weak in terms of resilience and prioritize where they want to take action."

Toronto, like most cities, already has many people working on many of the issues that fall under urban resilience. But City Manager Peter Wallace says cooperation between those areas of the city government can be improved, especially during crises.

"We're not as good as we can be and certainly should be in terms of integrating across our silos," Wallace said at Thursday's 100 Resilient Cities event at the Allstream Centre.

Communication between city officials during emergencies is a shortfall Mayor Tory also wants to improve upon.

Tory says improvements have been made to the city's emergency plan in the aftermath of previous crises, but he doesn't want to wait for the next one to make the city more resilient.

"Whether it's SARS years ago or the ice storm, we've been ready up to a point, but I think we have to be more ready."