Toronto needs a new plan for extreme winter weather, says staff report into massive January storm

Toronto spent $17 million on snow removal operations alone following the massive snow storm that hit the city in January — a total that amounts to 20 per cent of the city’s winter maintenance budget. 

Snow storm was city's biggest in 20 years, report says

Transit vehicles wound up stuck in snow across the city during a massive storm on Jan. 17-18. On Tuesday, city staff released a new report into how crews handled the snowfall. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Toronto spent $17 million on snow removal operations alone following the massive snow storm that hit the city in January — a total that amounts to 20 per cent of the city's winter maintenance budget. 

The storm highlights the need for the city to develop an extreme winter weather response plan complete with new service levels, staff said in a new report Tuesday. However, consultation work to create that plan won't be complete until early 2023, the report states.

Councillors, who faced a large number of complaints from the public, demanded more information about the snow-clearing operations from city staff earlier this year. This report is staff's response.

The storm was the city's biggest in 20 years, staff said. By the time it was over, Toronto had been hit with 55 centimetres of snow, with five centimetres falling per hour at the storm's peak. 

And then came weeks of frigid temperatures.

"The below freezing temperatures that followed the storm and lasted for more than two weeks created a unique set of challenges for storm clean up," staff said.

Those included but weren't limited to: 

  • Higher wear and tear on equipment that posed maintenance issues.
  • The fact that crews doing snow removal also do snow clearing.
  • Toronto simply doesn't have storage capacity for such a high volume of snow.

Barbara Gray, general manager of the city's transportation services division, said climate change is expected to bring "wilder weather" to the city and Toronto needs to be ready for storms earlier and later in the season storms, larger storms and stretches of warm weather.

"Having an extreme response plan gets us better prepared for the types of fluctuation that we now need to expect," she said.

In a statement Tuesday, Mayor John Tory said he requested the staff report in January — while crews were still removing snow —  to make sure the city examined how its divisions handled the situation.

The report will be discussed at the infrastructure and environment committee and at city council, Tory said.

"I have made it clear to Transportation Services that I want regular updates on the work underway to improve our extreme winter weather preparedness and response," Tory said.

Updates include the development of an extreme winter weather response plan, an internal review of snow removal operations, working with contractors to expand service delivery and setting up a dedicated snow-related 311 hotline to respond to residents, he added.

Haziefa Husain, a Scarborough resident, shows off the shovel she used after the storm in January. She said she would give the city a zero for its snow removal in her area (CBC)

Haziefa Husain, a Scarborough resident, said the snow was more than knee high and the snow banks were over her head following the January blizzard. Her street didn't get cleared until three days after the storm. 

"It took quite a while," she said.

While she waited, the city's online plow status map showed that streets west of Victoria Park, the boundary between Scarborough and the old city, were plowed more regularly. She said she would give the city a zero for its snow removal in her area after the storm

"We got no response from the city. When we called, we were told that they will get to us when everything is cleared. That was not good enough," she said.

Husain said the city needs to do better in all parts of Toronto. A plan is necessary but it should be followed, she said. 

"Topping the list would be equity of service delivery in all parts of the city," she said. "It needs to be remedied."

The city should expect calls from residents after an extreme weather event and should have a proper response, she added.


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