Freezing rain during the Dec. 21 storm produced a blanket of ice stretching from Southern Ontario all the way to New Brunswick. In Downsview, the weight of that ice caused many trees to snap and knock over power lines, leaving residents in the cold for days.
“We had people who were without power in some cases for six days,” said Councillor Anthony Perruzza (Ward 8, York West). “The most difficult situations were in apartment buildings. Whole apartment blocks lost power and they only had some emergency elements that worked. They basically lost heat, lost hot water. They only had their elevators working and some emergency lights, but not much else. That left people stranded in a really, really difficult way.”
The last twelve months have seen a series of extreme weather events in Toronto. In July, a storm and flash flood caused power outages, transit interruptions and widespread basement damage. Following on the heels of the December ice storm, a January freeze brought record low temperatures, freezing pipes and bursting water mains. Flooding from one such break closed the subway station at Yonge and Bloor.
While the science is still debated, climate change experts suggest extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more intense. Meanwhile, municipal governments are on the front lines of managing the resulting emergencies.
As the December ice storm unfolded, Perruzza and his staff worked diligently to ensure that the city’s crisis organizing committee and Toronto Hydro were made aware of all power outages reported to his office by constituents. They were constantly in touch with property owners and landlords to ensure that police visited to check for vulnerable people who needed to be taken to one of the two warming centres that had opened up in the Ward. Additionally, they worked to provide fuel and generators to buildings that were in desperate need.
“We also did a door to door, particularly with people whom we knew were elderly, to make sure that they either were ok, or needed to be taken to relatives’ or friends’ places who had power,” Perruzza said.
According to Perruzza, who lost power at his own house for four and a half days, the most difficult part of the whole ordeal was not being able to provide constituents with answers. More than anything, people wanted information. They needed to make decisions about whether to move or stay put.
Toronto Hydro, however, was unable to predict when electricity would be restored. With electrical demand already poised to outstrip supply, recovering from emergencies takes time.
“People were waiting it out hour by hour and the power wasn’t returning. They were sort of in the dark,” said Peruzza. “That was a very difficult thing for me to deal with and something we need to change going forward.”
Investing in our electrical grid, water mains and transit system is critical to being prepared for the next big storm.
A 2013 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives warns decision makers to pay attention a growing infrastructure deficit. One contributing factor, suggests the report, is the downloading of infrastructure responsibilities to municipal governments. In 1955, 75% of infrastructure investment came from federal and provincial governments. By 2011, municipal governments were responsible for almost 50% of infrastructure investment.
Overburdened municipal governments can`t plan for the future if they`re too busy coping with emergencies. It`s time to stop making decisions in the dark.
By David Ros