Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Delayed Posting from Early Days of Ice Storm Toronto That Led to Days of No Power in #DarkTO

Ice Storm T.O.: a disaster but not an emergency -- yet, said Mayor Rob Ford mid-Sunday, December 22, 2013. By that Sunday morning, one after the other, many parts of the biggest city in Canada had lost power and were continuing to do so. Toronto Hydro said 250,000 were without power; that was before all the power outages had occurred. Hour after hour the so-called up-to-date radio news on CBC Radio 1 continued to report this number even though it was obvious to us slowly chilling Torontonians -- as we heard -- whump -- trees fall down and -- crack -- power lines break and arc -- that way more people were continuing to lose power. That number had to be higher.

In the early evening hours, I saw Councillor Shelley Carroll tweet that it was one million people. Yeah, that sounded more like.

Toronto Hydro and the TTC worked hard to restore power and service -- we knew this because the radio and politicians in their tweets told us and because pockets of the city lit up -- but the former’s ability to communicate sucked.

One million people sans electricity and heat led to the Mayor not calling a state of emergency (still quoting that too-low Hydro number) and had Toronto Hydro’s phone line overwhelmed, quickly going from busy to a message that pretty much said: surrender! Their voice message system was full, and no one was answering. One million people in the dark and cold, and Toronto Hydro’s website remained inaccessible to me and others. The best I got was a text list of menu items. Their outages map was offline then online and soon out-of-date and offline again. Worst of all, as of 5:30 pm, they hadn’t updated 311 since 2:00 pm nor supplied 311 with a dedicated phone number (311 only had the one for the public) so that operators could get the latest info direct, and with 311’s computers also down -- not enough backup generation power? -- they couldn’t check Toronto Hydro’s on-again-off-again website either for those of us without power. And so 311, whose phone lines were working, couldn’t help Torontonians.

One million people without power -- or in Toronto Hydro parlance, updated in the evening, 300,000 customers -- and the best our utility company could do is to tell people sans power to report outages on their website. Let that sink in a minute. Landline phones work during power outages; internet connections do not, assuming their website, you know, worked and your cell data worked and your smartphone wasn’t dead (hey mister, can you spare a phone or power?). A robust call centre or using 311 in a two-way communications loop works best in #darkTO.

Looking at the row of icy dagger teeth hanging off all the power lines, I am reminded of how Toronto Hydro in the last century had started a 25-year power line burial program in anticipation of these kinds of storms then scaled it back hugely due to lack of funding commitment. Most of us would not be sitting in the cold dark if that program had remained funded.

One million people wondering when they’d have heat again, and CBC radio news had canned weather reports and old info. A couple of times they interrupted regular programming for a live call-in show. The one at 10:00 am was the only time we heard Toronto Hydro give fairly accurate information; but callers gave the most current information on which areas had no power and where trees were falling down. And there were a lot of trees and branches falling under the weight of that unforgiving ice all day and night long. Unfortunately, CBC Radio 1 Toronto mostly stuck to regular programming the rest of the day instead of keeping phone lines open for callers to keep us informed and to interview experts to give listeners the info we were asking for: How cold is too cold before we should leave for a warming centre? How long can food stay in an unpowered fridge? Where are power outages? What should we do about our own downed trees? Etc. Meanwhile, the Ontario Emergency website was out of date even before the day had begun, and various politicians were congratulating all the emergency services for their outstanding job.


I wrote this on my iPad by the warm light of candles 12 hours after my place went dark.*

More than 24 hours after Toronto began going dark and after they knew restoring hydro was a massive job that had to be done quickly in plunging temps, Toronto Hydro announced they were holding preliminary talks with crews in the US to help us cut down fallen trees and restore power lines.**

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*Between Christmas changes, navigating power outage, and finding the willpower from me, it took awhile to post this. I now know how to use a personal hotspot though.

**As of Christmas Day, I've heard of crews from Manitoba, Windsor, the Sault, southern Ontario areas helping Toronto out, but no one from the US. Yet on Christmas, Toronto Hydro's reconnection rate slowed down considerably as they had restored major feeders and were now going street to street for local outages, the kind requiring the greatest number of workers to fix. Without sufficient bodies, is a Sunday deadline realistic? In sub-zero temps, is this even remotely acceptable and not an emergency as our Mayor keeps insisting.

 

3 comments:

Krupo said...

Michigan is sending crews to us, they reported.

Excellent article, especially the points on how absolutely USELESS so many local radio shows were. Sadly, this is a total repeat of what happened in the July storm which hit me for 3 days. The radio was garbage while the city got flooded. Too much automated/robotic broadcasting, no ability or will to switch to live support/journalism when it's needed most.

Michael Suddard said...

The only crews I would add is Ottawa, 14 crew members came down from the Nation's Capital.

There were articles in Ottawa Citizen interviewing a pair of workers about why they were going. There are two Hydro Ottawa workers working their way through Toronto right now who have experience in ice storms, they worked the Ottawa storm back in 1998 and gave up their Christmas to help.

Red Cross volunteers saw 2 from Ottawa head down before and another 6 are on their way after Christmas. They are organizing and working in one of the warming centres in Toronto.

The provincial and federal government doesn't seem to be doing much, but the municipal governments surrounding Toronto are pitching in where they can.

A great question I have right now, that I just thought of, is where is the Canadian Military?

These guys can survive in Afghanistan building bases. Surely there are electricians and extra hands to remove the brush to speed this up. Where are they or do they require a "State of Emergency" declaration before they can lift a finger.

talk talk talk / Shireen said...

Thank you both for the additional info and great comments!

Michael: Former Mayor Mel Lastman had to declare a state of emergency to be able to call in the army to clear the massive snow dump, something I was grateful for. I liked that Lastman didn't care about the nation-wide jeering but did care about us. I don't know why Mayor Rob Ford was reticent ... you bring up a good point. Army engineers are trained in clearing brush and trees and working on electrical. Our military and army reserves are excellent at what they do and could've sped up reconnections, I'm sure.