22 September 2015

Three things about Hurricane Igor #nlpoli

hard to believe but it has been five years since Hurricane Igor ripped through Placentia Bay and into Trinity Bay.

What stands out most about those events today is the same as it was at the time.

First, the devastation was astounding in every respect.

Second,  the resilience of the people affected by the disaster was amazing.

Third the capacity of senior government officials, politicians and bureaucrats alike, to polish their own knob without any justification remains as appalling in 2010 as it was at the time.

The simple reality is that, despite a decade of experience with actual public emergencies and natural disasters, the “province’s emergency response system – municipal and provincial – [remained] woefully ill-prepared and poorly organized.”  Former emergency services director Fred Hollett can talk all he wants about the great work his people did.  The fact remains that  while his front-line people worked wonders, the closer people got to Fred’s office, the more likely you were to find obstacles and problems rather than anything like efficiency and effectiveness.

Provincial emergency services never provided any information to the public about where to go for help or how to get help.  It took Fire and Emergency Services “two whole days to post a web link to any Igor information and, chronologically,  the first release” was about how to file claims for compensation.”  At that point in the disaster, thousands lacked heat and light and many were cut off from food and fuel.  Practical information didn’t come from the provincial government.  It came from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

As SRBP put it two days into the disaster response, “the government system seems geared to the sort of knob polishing that infests sections of the Telegram. Frankly, the provincial municipal affairs minister today sounds much like his predecessor nine years ago.  Lots of kudos and vacuous verbiage but not much in the way of solid information that people need.  His hasty call to an open line show Thursday came with the breathless claim that he had to rush off to catch another sight-seeing helo-ride.  Big fat hairy deal.”

“Sure emergency response in the province works very well out where real people – road crews, police, fire, linemen, health care workers and so forth – do real jobs. Practicality and good will are the order of the day and that is what worked during 9/11.  If Newfoundland Power needs to get to a spot, they will sort it out with the local roads guys.  The result will be haphazard and uneven, but then again, that’s what happens when the entire provincial emergency “plan” relies in 2010, as it did in 2001, on people pulling it out of their ass on the day.

Meanwhile, back in the head-shed, in the place that is supposed to be co-ordinating the hockey bag of public and private agencies - assigning scarce resources to the places they will do the most good -  heads are just buried deep in the hockey bag.  Not much in the way of light is getting through. How else would one explain a political news conference the day of the storm called for exactly the same time as a technical report from Environment Canada and an official of the province’s emergency response division?

You can hear the same old excuses already bubbling up.  This was an unprecedented disaster, they are already saying.  Yes,  it was.  And so was the one before that and the one before that and the one before that.  We’ve heard it as an excuse for failures every time.”

The priority in government’s emergency response in Hurricane Igor was political.  As SRBP noted at the end of September 2010, the “ first media briefing came on Friday, September 24, a full three days after the storm.  Scheduled for 3:00 PM, it actually took place an hour later.  As noted in another post, the federal aid the public knew about and the aid described by the minister were radically different. The briefing contained little in the way of concrete information about the scope of the disaster, what the problems were and what was being done to deal with them. The full picture of the disaster only became apparent on Thursday and Friday as news media from St. John’s fanned out to see for themselves what was going on.

I”n between all this, though, [Tom] Hedderson and an assortment of cabinet ministers and backbench members of the government caucus did manage to call local open line shows and establish themselves as points of contact for emergency services. Remarks by the mayor of Lawn to CBC Radio’s Jeff Gilhooley on September 27 [audio link]  suggest that the way to get things done was to call ministers, not the emergency services officials.”

One of the things those politicians did not do was accept federal offers of assistance even though it was nakedly obvious from media reports that the provincial government was simply unable to respond adequately to what people in the province needed.  They dithered and delayed.  Information that came to light the year after the disaster makes it clear that provincial officials ignored offers of aid from federal officials.  When they did accept federal help, provincial officials placed great emphasis on limiting the scope of what the federal government provided. 

“The first provincial assistance request to the federal government,” SRBP wrote in 2011, “focused entirely on cash to pay compensation for victims.  At a time when thousands were still stranded, lacking power, and with dwindling food supplies, the provincial authorities were busily handing out claims packets and looking to Uncle Ottawa for cash.  Meanwhile, the politicians were flying around staging photo ops for the evening news programs.”

In the midst of the disaster, Danny Williams’ staff finalised details of a publicity stunt for the Premier – an appearance on This hour has 22 minutes – that he recorded in St. John’s on September 24.

It took four days for provincial officials to request substantive federal assistance. Officially, the politicians tried to claim they waited to call the federal officials  until they had enough information to correctly assess the scope of the disaster.  E-mails obtained by The Packet in 2011 show that provincial officials knew the magnitude of the disaster from the outset. 

There’s still no explanation why provincial politicians and senior officials refused repeated offers of federal help despite knowing the scope of the disaster and of the province’s inability to manage on its own.