-by Bill Dunphy
It seemed a little incongruous that Monday was such a beautiful day in Inverness County, yet walking in any direction in most communities you couldn’t escape the sound of generators supplying power to homes and businesses. For most of us, we were going on 48 hours without power following the aftermath of hurricane Dorian.
The power went out early Saturday evening as Dorian’s winds downed trees and powerlines, snapped power poles, and blocked streets and roads. Thankfully, with the exception of some minor damage to houses and obliterated baby barns, there were no serious injuries reported. By Sunday morning, the worst of the storm was over. In Dorian’s wake, it left more than 400,000 of Nova Scotia Power’s customers – 80 per cent – without power. The power came back on in Inverness around 6:00 p.m. on Monday, and as of Tuesday morning there were 105,000 Nova Scotians still without power, including many small pockets of outages across Inverness County. The estimated time of restoration for these people was 11:00 p.m. today (Wednesday), but given the levels of difficulty in locating and repairing these outages, some of us could be without electricity for longer yet.
It is during times like this that people come together in support of each other, and we discover what works, what doesn’t, and any deficiencies in our support network are brought to light and hopefully improved upon for the next time a weather event or other type of emergency arises.
What is really apparent is how reliant we’ve become on having a source of electricity. Some say we’ve become soft, but they don’t take into account that the days of having a Warm Morning coal stove in the kitchen and a kerosene lamp in every room are behind us. Today, keeping our cell phones charged is a priority; as are keeping our fridges and freezers going; maintaining our internet connection; and making sure we have power to our televisions so that the kids can stay entertained with their X-Boxes and Playstations.
Fire departments across the county opened their hall doors as Comfort Centres, where residents could come in for a bowl of soup, a sandwich, and a cup of tea or coffee while their cell phones were charging. A tip of the hat to all the women and men who volunteered their time to keep these centres running.
In Inverness, the town’s only grocery store, the Shean Co-op could not open its doors without power, but it still helped to supply the fire hall with the bread and other food items for the Comfort Centre.
In the view that our weather is changing, that our storms are bigger and stronger, we might consider that any new construction should include a back-up generator in its plans. Even existing businesses that provide an essential service, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, should at least have a discussion on whether it makes good business sense to add a generator against the loss of food and medicines that occur during an extended power outage.
Then, of course, we need to supply all those generators with fuel. Tommy Poirier, who operates the gas station in Inverness and lives in Whycocomagh, brought his family to work so that he could open his gas pumps on Sunday. It’s not something he was required to do, but it was something he felt he had to do. And for the first few hours it was mayhem at the pumps as people lined up to fill their gas jugs and cars. Sadly, during this period of chaos, some people chose to fill their gas cans and go without paying for the gas. At the end of the day, he was short $300 – basically the small profit he would have made for his effort.
Times of need apparently doesn’t bring out the best in all of us.
As the outages approached 48 hours, it creates another situation for those without generators and for those residents who live in housing provided by the Cape Breton Island Housing Authority – food safety. By Monday afternoon, the situation for seniors in CBIHA housing was getting tense. When the power goes out in senior housing, generators kick in that provide heat and one light per unit. Common rooms in these buildings have stove and fridge capabilities, but as the food dwindles, the residents begin to wonder if they are seeing the last slice of bread or cup of milk being consumed.
The problems created by hurricane Dorian were mitigated by the fact that it wasn’t winter and the need for warmth wasn’t great. Perhaps the CBIHA could explore a way in which the energy used to provide heat could instead be directed to providing an outlet in each unit that could be used to run a refrigerator. But if that’s not possible, then there is certainly a need for an emergency plan that coordinates a community’s resources to provide hot, and safe, meals to our seniors.
It is these kinds of situations that will fall onto the lap of David Coulombe. He is the new director of infrastructure and emergency services for Inverness County. However, he doesn’t step into the job until next month, once his tour of duty in Japan, where he is a commander with Canada’s Naval Reserve.
Inverness County has been without an Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) coordinator for several years now. However, since Keith MacDonald took over as chief administrative officer, he has been holding meetings with the county’s fire chiefs (most of them, though some have yet to attend a meeting) and asking them what their needs are and what resources they have on hand. MacDonald was in contact with all the fire departments during this emergency, ensuring that the Comfort Centres were open and had adequate fuel for the generators and food for the people coming in looking for a meal.
As mentioned, had this been January or February, and the power outage extended to 72 or 96 hours, the situation would be extremely dire for many of our citizens. Keeping a house warm and preventing pipes from freezing and bursting is beyond the capability of many generators.
Coulombe will also have to address the ability of the county to provide water during an extended power outage. Warnings for most communities were issued on Monday, urging residents on municipal water to use it sparingly. For many, this meant the opposite as they started filling bath tubs and jugs in the event the water was shut off. When the power came back on, all that water went down the drain. For the county, it’s not that the water wasn’t there, but without power, there were no pumps to deliver it.
We’ve got the power to do better in times of an emergency. That will come from learning from our mistakes and deficiencies and working together to make sure we’re better prepared for any contingency. We’re not there yet.