27 January 2020

The Emergency Response Disaster #nlpoli

Communities on the northeast Avalon recovered relatively quickly from the worst blizzard in the province’s recorded history. However, the recovery in the City of St. John’s was slower than that of the neighbouring municipalities.  Both the mayor and one media commentator have placed responsibility for this on the provincial government and out-of-date legislation.  However, the actual problems in the recovery in St. John’s stemmed from the City’s approach to recovery operations. Other issues that have not gained significant public notice persisted because of the province’s failure to intervene.

The General Situation

Residents of the northeast Avalon came through the largest blizzard in the province’s recorded history with relatively few fatalities and virtually no reported incidents of significant damage to property or infrastructure.  That is remarkable in itself given the storm and a smaller snowfall that followed on its dropped more than  100 centimetres on parts of the region and wind gusts hit between 1305 and 150 kilometres an hour during the peak of the blizzard. 

Of the roughly 250,000 affected by the storm, only about 10% - 27,000  - lost power during the storm and the bulk of those had their power restored within 48 hours of the last snow flake. This contrasts with 2014 when a series of events knocked out power to a significant portion of the island for several days. 

Two avalanches reported publicly damaged houses and caused people to leave their homes but without injury.  This is in contrast to a relatively minor blizzard in 1959 that caused an avalanche that The Battery in St John’s that killed nine people.

Municipalities in the region had cleared at least passable cuts on all streets within 48 to 72 hours after the storm subsided on Saturday and by Tuesday all major municipalities had begun to lift their states of emergency to one degree or another. The provincial government had also cleared the major highways to the city within two days of the storm.

The City of St. John’s and the 2020 Blizzard

The City of St. John’s and its neighbouring municipalities declared states of emergency quickly after the onset of the blizzard on 17 January.  This was evidently co-ordinated with the provincial government in advance of the storm, consistent the relevant legislation and emergency plans (see below).

However, the City of St. John’s took a noticeably different approaches from that of its neighbours.  Mount Pearl, Paradise, and Conception Bay South lifted their states of emergency entirely during daylight hours as soon as they had cleared most streets with at least one cut and had cleared the major arteries entirely.

By contrast, the City of St. John’s placed the greatest emphasis on containing residents within their homes and limiting their opportunities to venture outside, even for necessities. Ostensibly this was for public safety, however, all municipalities ear to have achieved roughly the same level of street opening at the same time.  Based on repeated comments by the mayor, the City’s approach appears to have been driven by concern to keep residents out of the way of snow clearing equipment. In other words, it appears that the City’s management of the storm response was driven by its streets department.

The difference in approach was clear from the outset.  In addition to closing all business and prohibiting the use of vehicles within the city - except for emergency vehicles and other exempt vehicles - the City declaration of a state of emergency prohibited residents from using skis and snowshoes to get about. This was clearly intended to keep people off the street as much as possible.

This was , in effect, an illegal order since the powers granted under section 34 of the City of St. John’s Act only allow the city council to control residents with a curfew.  Bans are limited to vehicles.  The ban on using snowshoes and skis undoubtedly hampered some people from offering assistance to relatives and friends who lived within walking distance. Yet the City clearly intended to keep people hemmed in so its snow clearing and removal from the streets went on unimpeded for as long as possible.

The City’s public information program was troubled from the start.  The City’s first attempt at holding a media briefing – by conference call – collapsed because of problems with the phone lines.  City communications officials never thought of using Face book and Periscope, for example, to broadcast messages straight to residents.

Neither the provincial government nor any of the municipalities affected by the storm provided daily, public  operational briefings background briefings on the state of region,  the progress of recovery, and the issues affecting the recovery.  They did use social media and periodic media statements and hastily called scrums to announce changes to the state of emergency restrictions.

Such daily operational briefings are typically  conducted by the officials responsible for directing the recovery, not politicians.  They are standard practise in emergency response in other parts of North America.  Publicly broadcast operational briefings give the senior emergency response decision-makers (typically not politicians) to inform the public directly about the emergency and the state of recovery operations. 

These types of briefings ensure that the public receives a single, authoritative statement about the current status of the region affected by the emergency,  rules and restrictions and the reasons for them, and, ideally, some sense of how long the emergency may last.  The briefings minimise the potential for misunderstanding and miscommunications and should, ideally, help to bring confidence in the recovery operation.  Quick passage of basic, factual information about the emergency and the recovery allows individuals to make informed decisions about their own situation.  This would include rationing of supplies etc, how to go about resupplying,  procedures for obtaining essential care and so forth.

The City of St. John’s Emergency Plan (2017) includes a specific reference to a media centre, which would typically be used for such daily media briefings.  It is also a way of channelling media to a single point of contact and  a single source of authoritative information for all emergency responders.  This reduces the load and helps to manage the pressures on the individual responder organisations. 

Since 2001 (the 9/11 attacks),  such an approach has not been standard practise for government agencies in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Like the response to the emergency itself,  public information tends to be politicised.  Politicians are put in front of cameras, typically to make generic, positive statements. Frequently, as was the case with Mayor Danny Breen,  politicians are unable to answer basic questions about the emergency response.  This is because the politicians are not directing the day-to-day operations involved in responding to an emergency. 

Public information released by the City caused additional confusion for residents. The City did not  consistently indicate in its announcements of partial ban lifts what types of transportation residents could use and other crucial details. In announcing that grocery stores could open at 10 AM, for example, the City made no reference to whether city residents could drive in advance of 10 AM or could only leave their homes at 10 AM.  Additionally, in that case, since the City announcement suggested the stores would not be open again for more than 48 hours, residents flocked to grocery stores and added unnecessary strain on employees and police resources, who turned up in some locations to ensure residents stayed orderly.

Another example of the poor standard of public information was a news release posted on the City website at 10:45 AM Sunday morning.  It is poorly written, does not indicate on what date the access is permitted and for how long, puts irrelevant information at the front of the release, and repeats the City mantra that residents should stay indoors and, most importantly for the City, stay off streets.

Sunday, January 19, 2020 - 10:45 AM
City Lifts Some Restrictions as State of Emergency Continues
City of St. John’s snow clearing crews continue to work around the clock to clear streets for regular traffic. While progress is being made after the significant snow fall experienced on Friday and Saturday, January 17 and 18, at this point we do not feel that the roads are cleared adequately for general city movement and traffic.
·      Private snow contractors will be permitted to conduct snow clearing operations effective immediately.
·      Gas stations are permitted to open effective immediately for the purposes of fuel for snow clearing.
·      Pharmacies are permitted to open from noon until 7pm for emergency medication needs. 

More snow is expected on Sunday evening into Monday. The state of emergency is still in effect.
Please stay in[doors] and off city streets.
Details of the partial access allowed on Sunday came from the mayor in media interviews and from City councilors who spread word of the City’s decisions via social media. 

In the event, residents ignored the strict letter of the emergency order as well as the City’s inconsistencies and did what they felt was necessary.   They ventured outdoors to clear their driveways down to the street edge.  They walked, snowshoed, skied, used snow mobiles or drive their cars to various locations.  Some convenience stores opened to serve customers, chiefly in the downtown area where residents had limited access to drug stores and gas stations.

At the same time, the police public communications throughout the emergency emphasised the restrictions on travel at the same time that the City was announcing access – limited as it was  - to some emergency supplies. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary at one point released delays of fines it had levied for violations of the emergency order.

The day after the city issued the announcement about gas stations and pharmacies,  the City announced that pharmacies would not be allowed to open for a second day, although gas stations would.  An intervention by the provincial health minister and a subsequent involvement of the pharmacy regulatory board led to a handful of drug stores being open.  The result of the way the city disseminated the information using social media and its own website, both messages – no pharmacies, and some pharmacies – circulated simultaneously.  The handful of pharmacies that did open on the second day did not cover the entire city and had a limited ability to provide medication to residents. They also cut residents off from a readily accessible source of household supplies and food.

City decision-making during the emergency appeared to be taken on a day by day basis and was, generally, haphazard.  One city council was able to convince the mayor to allow a grocery to open so that its meals section could feed firefighters and other emergency responders even though these people already had access to food.  The mayor also allow a pizza franchise to provide the responders with free pizza and, in the process, earned considerable free advertising for what amounted to a publicity stunt.  At the same time, residents  - including those without power - were not able to purchase food anywhere in the city.  Messages from the police warned residents they would be fined for violating the state of emergency order.

When the city allowed taxis on the road again, it initially limited the exemption to two firms.  After some protests, the list of exempt taxi firms expanded although, once again, two messages – two taxi firms and all taxi firms – circulated publicly at the same time.

The politicisation of public emergencies

The transformation of public emergencies into political events took place in 2001 and accelerated after 2003.  The response in Newfoundland and Labrador to Hurricane Igor saw political considerations placed ahead of practical ones and political photo opportunities replaced the passage of practical information by emergency responders.

As noted earlier, reporters asked Mayor Danny Breen simple, factual questions about details of what he was announcing.  Breen was frequently unable to answer.  Even as he lifted the state of emergency,  Breen could not or would not estimate how long it would take to ensure that all streets in the city outside the heavily congested downtown core were wide enough for two cars to pass safely.

By contrast,  federal briefings included both the federal cabinet representative for the province but chiefly were run by the officer commanding the military contribution to the recovery effort.

Other problems

Because St. John’s is a strategic hub for the entire province, closing the city for a week produced disruptions in the rest of the province.  Oceanex could not deliver containers of food destined for outside St. John’s even though the city streets and the arteries connecting to the Trans Canada Highway were cleared within 48 hours of the storm.  Similarly,  the main postal sorting and distribution centre remained closed for the entire week despite its being located on a major artery that connected to the highway.

There were also problems in the storm phase of the emergency.  The City of St. John’s did not open warming centres in advance of the event.  Warming centres are places with limited amounts of food but with heat and electricity to allow those affected by any power outages. The city did warn that it might open such centres but by the time it made that statement – repeated by the deputy mayor on social media – most people had their power restored.  Other municipalities did establish warming centres.

Nor were problems in the emergency response confined to the City of St. John’s.  Eastern Health had no plan to get staff to and from its major facilities in the region during a state of emergency.  The result was that staff worked excessively lengthy shifts although some nurses did report for work by violating the admittedly absurd ban on using snow shoes in the City. A mental health clinic opened in St. John’s part way through the recovery but again, there was no reference officially to lifting the restriction on travel in order to get to the clinic, located in the city centre.

Misinformation from City and Media

Mayor Danny Breen blamed problems in the City’s response on the provincial government.  CBC’s John Gushue repeated Breen’s comments and affirmed them in a piece on Saturday about the supposedly demolished provincial emergency measures organisation.  Breen also made repeated references to the fact the City had not declared a state of emergency since the 1980s. 

“Other things have been exposed,“ Gushue wrote.  “For instance, the legislation governing states of emergency in St. John's is 35 years old.  But the biggest gap has to be at the provincial level. A number of us noted the absence of EMO or equivalent, especially in the early days of the blizzard and the aftermath.”

The problem for both Breen and Gushue is that none of this is true.

The City’s emergency plan dates from 2017 and the province’s plan dates from 2014.  The section of the City of St. John’s Act related to states of emergency dates from 1971. It gives the City the power to declare an emergency, which is really all that it needs.  The rest of the authority the City needs is from the Emergency Services Act, passed by the House of Assembly in 2008.  The details of how the City would actually manage an emergency are contained in its emergency management plan, which was revised – as already noted – in 2017.

As for the Emergency Measures Organization,  it still exists.  Had Gushue done some basic research, he would have found that EMO – under that name – disappeared when the provincial government amalgamated EMO with the fire commissioner’s office in 2007.  

In 2017,  the provincial government blended the separate agency with the Department of Municipal Affairs and created a division called Fire, Emergency, and Corporate Services. The new division has the same responsibilities as it predecessors.

Managing Emergencies

What Gushue and others noted was the absence of the provincial government dominance of public communications, even though those communications have been more political than practical.
In response to the 2020 blizzard,  the provincial government said little to nothing publicly about its own emergency response operations. Once the Premier returned to St. John’s from Deer Lake,  he and some of his cabinet colleagues spoke to media regularly.  They limited their comments to political matters, such as compensating some workers for lost wages.  The provincial government did not conduct operational media briefings.

The City of St. John’s emergency management plan is consistent with the provincial Emergency Management Plan (2012, updated 2014), the Emergency Services Act, 2008, and generally accept emergency response practise across Canada.  It provides for an integrated approach to response involving all levels of government as well as the private sector and not-for-profit sector.

Municipalities play the crucial role in responding to emergencies.  The province looks after its particular responsibilities.  It assists municipalities with additional resources and can assist in co-ordinating efforts with other municipalities,  provincial departments and agencies, and the federal government,  as needed.

The City’s emergency plan is predicated on that approach.  The plan includes a diagram of the municipal emergency operations centre.  That diagram has stations available for provincial representatives from different agencies (health, social services, etc) as well as individuals from the not-for-profit sector (such as the Salvation Army. 

The Problems, Unanswered Questions, and Apparent Failures

Assuming the City activated its emergency plan,  city managers had at their disposal all the information resources and points of contact they needed to provide appropriate responses to the storm and to carry out recovery operations.

We simply do not know why the City failed in so many respects – many of them noted here – nor why the City took so much longer than other municipalities to loosen the restrictions on citizens.
It appears the City placed the greatest emphasis on street cleaning, not public welfare.  It failed to provide the public with basic, factual, timely information about the emergency and the emergency response. During the storm, it failed to provide warming centres for residents without power. It failed to provide adequate, factual public information about the emergency.

The series of haphazard, brain fart (like the pizza and chicken tenders examples), or completely bone-headed (two taxi companies, and omitting food banks from its exempt list) decisions suggest deeper problems with the way the senior city officials made decisions.  There appears to have been too much involvement by politicians, much as occurred at the provincial level in the response to Igor.

We can assume the province also activated its emergency plan at least to the Level II stage. This took place after the storm, once the military arrived. The province operated a call centre to despatch military teams even though the bulk of their work was apparently in the City of St. John’s.  There remains confusion about whether there was a need for them outside St. John’s.  Because the provincial government did not conduct operational briefings and news media did not cover the emergency outside St. John’s and the immediate surrounding areas, we do not know what other problems took place.

The public deserves an explanation of why the City of St. John’s and the provincial government allowed Oceanex containers to sit at the terminal and why mail delivery outside the storm area was hampered by the state of emergency in St. John’s.  The City was able to provide an exemption in both cases and if the provincial government was aware of the situation, it remains to be seen why the province failed to intervene.

Eastern Health’s emergency plans are clearly deficient.  We do not know how other agencies, such as social services, fared.  In at least one neighbourhood,  residents of a temporary social services shelter relied on neighbours for food.  This may have occurred in other cases as well, given that the City placed such an extreme emphasis on prohibiting travel even after streets had been cleared to a basic level.

The issues raised here do not warrant a public inquiry.  They do, however, require a detailed post-operational assessment by a knowledgeable individual or group outside the provincial government.  Too many things went very badly for the provincial government and the City of St. John’s at the senior management level for anyone to be satisfied with the string of attaboys and attagirls that have been flowing since the storm.