Emergency Prep Lessons from a Windstorm in Nova Scotia

A Nova Scotia windstorm revealed building issues, and prompted emergency planning.

In fall 1973, a devastating windstorm struck the city of Sydney, at the tip of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, the seaport link between mainland Canada and its easternmost island province, Newfoundland.

The storm revealed serious problems with the construction of housing in one area of the city. No matter which way the homes faced, the wind tore off a section of the roof, always from the same direction.

Solid Preparation and Planning

But the storm also revealed that the city had a good emergency plan. There was an operations centre and a back-up location and the city leaders, directed by the mayor, effectively dealt with the various crises one by one.

For example, as a rumour spread that the ferry between Sydney and Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, had sunk in the storm, the mayor got the one surviving radio station to send its portable unit to the docks for an interview with the ferry captain. He said that the crossing from Newfoundland had been rough, but all was well. The mayor also used that station to keep the public informed about everything else the city was doing.

The city had also anticipated that power losses might hit gas stations. The city’s own gas pumps were linked to emergency power so emergency vehicles could keep operating. Sydney not only supplied its own vehicles but its neighbors, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

(When the police chief in North Bay, Ontario, read the report of what happened in Sydney, he immediately changed the plans for his new police building so that its gas pumps were linked to emergency power.)

Overall, there were few problems that caught Sydney by surprise, but one happened a day after the storm passed, when the hospital suddenly lost power. Its back-up generators had functioned so efficiently that power crews had not restored its power; they thought it had been hooked up. The generators stopped working when they ran out of fuel.

Creative Teamwork

Sydney’s major problem was that trees were down all over the city, as were power lines, and the two were tangled together. Since it wasn’t clear to works crews whether the power was out, they were reluctant to tackle tree clearance and removal when power lines were tangled in the trees.

But the trees were blocking power crews from getting to the downed power lines. The crews did the best they could, and eventually power was restored.

When the city reviewed what happened, it revised its plans. Now, when there’s a storm warning, public works crews move some equipment to the power garage and power crews move some equipment to the works garage. Once the storm subsides, the two agencies work in teams with the power crews being able to assure the works crews when it’s safe to operate.

The idea of pre-emergency cooperation has been developed elsewhere.

In developing a snow emergency plan for Hamilton, Ontario, local officials initially planned to keep main arteries open. When this plan was reviewed, however, they realized that this meant that fire stations not on main routes would be trapped by the snow. The same would be true of ambulances.

Again, the solution was a team approach. When there’s a snow warning, some snow equipment is placed at each fire station, where it’s joined by an ambulance and a police car. The plows keeps clearing roads near the fire station and stand ready to lead a convoy of fire trucks, an ambulance and a police car when there’s an emergency call. Because fire stations are dispersed geographically, the system guarantees the ability to respond efficiently to an emergency in any part of the city.

Hamilton has another part to its plan.

The city is at two levels linked by a road known as the “mountain access.” The top level is not really on a mountain, but the access road from the main part of the city up to Hamilton “mountain” is very steep.

In its initial plan, the works department had plows assigned to keep this access road cleared, a demanding task. After the city ran an emergency exercise, it revised that plan.

The reason was that during an emergency, other agencies had assumed that the mountain access would be out of operation. Because of that, the downtown hospital, which normally handles all emergencies, opens a temporary urgent-care facility on the top of the mountain. The police do the same, and the fire department is already there.

That means there’s no priority during a snow emergency to keep the access road open.

Peace River, Alberta, took a similar approach in its planning for floods. Most of the city is on the east side of the river, but the town is also divided by another river, the Heart, which flows into the Peace. When the bridge across the Heart is blocked by flooding, the town is split. The only road route between the two sides of the town involves more than an hour’s drive.

To ensure efficient emergency response, the town relocates emergency equipment so both sides of the town can be served by emergency personnel.

The “Disaster Subculture”

Dr. William Anderson established many years ago that people in communities that experience periodic problems such as floods develop what he called a disaster subculture. Their experience teaches them what to do when an emergency threatens. Incidents that would cause major problems for other communities are treated by them as routine.

His findings were driven home to me when I moved to Washington, D.C., just in time for the Kennedy inauguration. I was stunned by the city’s inability to cope with what I, having grown up Ottawa, Canada’s capital, saw as a slight snow fall.

Disaster subcultures of course can create problems. If people treat a situation as routine, they may ignore warnings when a more serious emergency develops. They think the next flood will be just like the last one.

Poised as it is on the Atlantic Ocean, Sydney can’t escape Atlantic storms. Hamilton, like many Canadian communities, can’t avoid snow storms. Peace River can’t avoid floods. All three communities have accepted their status and revised response plans based on a realistic assessment of what will happen. They in effect have adjusted their planning into a realistic subculture one that improves their ability to deal effectively with emergencies they can’t prevent.

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