Emergency ill-preparedness


1) Unlocking the grid

Number one: rebuild our aged electrical network and move to automated “smart grid” technology to allow power to be moved where it’s needed when it’s needed. Think “load shedding” – shutting off non-essential functions like air conditioners to help conserve power – and using solar to fill the gaps.


2) Situation critical

Toronto was lucky. Unlike the 1998 ice storm that hit mostly eastern Ontario and Quebec, or the 2003 blackout, this one didn’t knock out power altogether.

While many hospitals, emergency services and other critical operations have backup power, those systems aren’t designed to run for days, which means we could be at risk in larger storms. The answer: localized power generation both through standby generators and green power sources that aren’t reliant on the grid.


3) Higher grounded

Toronto pumps sewage to treatment plants from many low-lying areas, so you can imagine what a longer-term lack of electrical power might mean. But even if we can get water purified and pumped up to our high reservoirs, and then via gravity to taps in houses and low-rises, what happens to the hundreds of thousands of apartment and condo dwellers who live above the seventh floor and rely on electrical pumps for water? Many high-rises have backup power, but often not enough to sustain pressure, and certainly not for extended periods. More crisis planning needs to done to ensure that vulnerable people, seniors and those with disabilities, can get water in emergencies.


4) Canopy Catch-22

To substantially reduce the risk of limbs falling on wires and knocking out the network, up to 25 per cent of the tree canopy would have to be pruned. But thinning the canopy to that extent would end up increasing the effects of climate change and add to peak electrical use, further straining the system. A compromise: increase the forestry budget to allow for better inspection and timely pruning of trees rather than today’s roughly six-month wait.


5) Sewer storm

Hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to expand sewers to prevent the basement flooding that occurs after extreme rainstorms or winter thaws. Toronto has large underground storage tanks, but they’re not large enough to handle huge volumes. More money must be put back in the budget to plant trees and create porous pavement to absorb runoff. Many such projects were recently axed due to the lack of funding caused by council’s plan to reduce annual water rate increases to 3 per cent from the current 9 per cent.


6) Road test

Storms of various kinds can also test the road network. Cities like Saskatoon are looking at thawing technology like that used on many of Toronto’s downtown’s sidewalks to keep roads clear of ice. While it’s not planet-friendly, the tech could be used in a limited way to make sure problem areas on large arterials with bus routes stay navigable. The bigger problem, however, is identifying how to prevent the flooding and washing out of key arteries during deluges like last summer’s.


7) Water hole

The water and sewage system is T.O.’s largest user of power, way bigger than the next-biggest – the TTC. The F.J. Horgan Water Treatment Plant, the city’s newest, was out of commission for a time during the storm. A number of pumping stations in Scarborough were also affected. More serious sewage issues were averted this time, but it wouldn’t take much more than we experienced to put us over the tipping point. News flash: with normal usage, the city has about 48 hours’ worth of stored water. We need a system of diesel-powered backup pumps that could maintain minimal pressure throughout the system for essential services like firefighting and water filtration.


8) Wired over and underground

Toronto began a program of undergrounding wires back in the 1970s, believe it or not. That program was suspended, however, due to its perceived high cost – up to $5,000 per house at the time. Undergrounding wouldn’t solve all weather-related hydro problems, like flooding of existing underground vaults. But burying wires when opportunities arise would mitigate the effects of severe weather. The major street redesign done on St. Clair during construction of the streetcar right of way, for example, kept transit operational.


9) Massing transit

The critical service in any extreme weather event is transportation. Minimal TTC service during and after severe storms is essential not only for getting people to work but, as was the case last month, for getting those without power to warming centres. The TTC learned from past crises, most notably 1999’s snowstorm, when the army was called in, and has an extensive extreme weather plan, including applying glycol (a de-icer) to outdoor subway power lines. The ice storm showed that generators can keep subway stations operable to ensure a skeletal transit system during large-scale power outages.

But tweaks are required. Subway trains are parked in the tunnels in extreme weather to make sure they start. In the future, some streetcars could be stored underground at the Spadina station and in the Union-to-Queens Quay tunnels to keep them operable in bad weather. The new streetcars set for arrival this summer will offer better reliability in cold weather specially designed block heaters and periodic nighttime running would keep older streetcars up and running.


10) Crisis management 101

More attention needs to be paid to reinforcing our basic infrastructure. Without such preparation we put the economic well-being of the city at risk. But even if billions are spent on storm prevention, people need more education about how to survive without power and water for a few days. Few people know that an assumption of two to three days of food and water self-sufficiency is built into a good emergency preparedness plan.

Ice storm number crunch

$106 million Estimated cost to Toronto of December’s ice storm.

168 Number of TCH buildings without power at the height of the storm and its aftermath. That’s 19,400 units and 50,000 residents.

$25 million Estimated cost of debris cleanup.

19 Number of fire stations without power for extended periods.

2,351 Calls to the fire department about wires down.

668 Fire calls between December 21 and 30. That’s more than seven times the normal volume.



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