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We had it much easier than Quebec

Ice storm aftermathLast July as I watched the flooding in the Don Valley all the unease created by my decades of experience organizing relief projects rose with the water.

I knew from what I heard climate scientists say during my work with the United Nations Environment Program 20 years ago that “once in a century” disasters would become more frequent with greater consequences and our weather increasingly erratic.

A month later the neighbourhood was struck with a devastating ice storm that destroyed or maimed many of our wonderful trees, threw us into a world of cold and dark, altered holiday plans and resulted in heart stopping credit card bills for those who managed to get a hotel room.

As I stood at the door of Sobeys on Christmas Eve Day  I was bemused by some of the conversations around me, like indignation that the rock salt promised earlier in the day still had not arrived. Not to trivialize our very uncomfortable ice storm experience, but we got off lightly.

The Quebec storm in 1998 was our storm on steroids.  Up to 100 mm of ice shredded hydro wires then levelled the towers and trees. Three and a half million people struggled for nearly a month. Twenty- five people died, and the local economy staggered.

What about next time?

In one year we have had a flooding near miss and a very bad storm. There is no way to know what the next emergency will be, but ignoring reality is no protection.

Your house is a shelter for your family. Create an emergency plan . May I offer a few suggestions to start you thinking?

Keep your house well stocked with food that has a long shelf life.

My mother had what I called her depression era pantry. She could prepare meals for an army at any time. I have followed her example in a modest way with enough food and water in the house for three weeks. Large jugs of water are refilled once a month. This is a good child assignment.

A source of heat off the grid is important. In a summer blackout places to be cool make the

difference. An American study after a recent killer heat wave found that a key factor was that the place should be familiar and considered safe. Local libraries saved lives!

For all seasons the latest safer (but more expensive) generators are a good investment.

Consider buying survival kits for your house and car. Costco carries one and there are several sold online. Check Canadian Tire for camping equipment like small hibachis and battery powered lights.

If the kit seems too costly you can create your own. The Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and  Halton region web sites have good information. Divide your items by the number of family members and pack them in backpacks that can be carried easily and kept with you in a shelter.

The dog can carry his/her own. Include the pet’s medical records so he/she will be welcome at shelters and hotels. Include prescription numbers for everyone!

As Leaside homes flood at the best of times, do not keep your survival kit in the basement. I have our packs right inside the front door. Have cash in the house (attention all thieves: there will not be enough to warrant a break in) as cards and ATMs may not be working in an emergency.

I would like to see a street by street directory of neighbours’ skills. Neighbours with chain saws were the street heroes of the ice storm. Emergency Preparedness Week is in May. We could have seminars on emergency skills. One person from each street could learn each skill.

I was willing to check on neighbours during the Ice Storm 2013, but I know so few of them that I had no idea who might need help. On my former street,  we had an annual street potluck dinner. It was fun,  with good food and a pleasant way to get to know your neighbours. I learned who was pregnant, disabled or lived alone.

Communication is so important; you cannot make decisions based on nothing and rumours move faster than facts. Linking up email lists in the community with volunteers to send out the latest information would help. Of course the cell system let many people down this time. There are off grid phone chargers. Volunteer town criers with bull horns are an option. Low tech shines in an emergency — buy  hand-cranked radios and  lights.

If conditions worsen how do we let the police/armed forces/Red Cross know what we need? In some American states, the National Guard issues posters featuring large letters. Each letter lets authorities know from the road the needs of the people in the house (W for wheelchair or B for baby). Your poster taped inside your storm door could have your vital information written on the back to enable rescuers to assist you efficiently and move on to the next person quickly.

Many expensive plans for changing the grid will be tabled in coming months.  We should be well informed and ready to enter the discussions. Should the grid shift to a swarm approach, should we rethink the building code for houses? The Hydro Quebec web site outlines what they did after the ice storm of 1998.

Start your plan today as next time could happen while you are saying I don’t have time.

The temperature was typically -30. Falling ice in Montreal closed downtown for a week. There were no stores, restaurants or gas stations for weeks; no promised rock salt. The army fed 100,000. Our charity sent 3,500 gourmet meals cooked by volunteer hotels and restaurants in Toronto to shelters. Meal delivery by planes and snowmobiles!

People died in Toronto from carbon monoxide and houses burned from careless use of candles, but as far as I know Leaside escaped those tragedies. Grid failure was capricious. While one house was without power for a week, three doors down another house stayed unaffected. Some stores remained open so basic supplies were available, but travelling to get them was dangerous. Neighbours cleared the streets, marked dangerous wires and cooked for each other.

Working relief for that long month in Quebec I learned a vital lesson. Prepare to stay in your house as long as you safely can and be able to leave it quickly and effectively if necessary. If you stay at home, NGO and government resources can be concentrated on damage repair and recovery.

The Quebec storm produced a lot of political posturing, even in those dire circumstances. Posturing was apparent at our embattled city hall but in Leaside Councillor John Parker visited shelters and sat by his phone to answer calls from anxious residents.

As in Quebec most elected representatives in Ontario were brilliant: they listened and responded. It is brave in politics to react quickly as it seems that no good deed goes unpunished. As we saw in Ontario the food gift card distribution initiated by Premier Wynne and pulled together in record time by Loblaws and others was trashed for not being perfect!