Assessing the Response to Igor

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June 22, 2011 – So, the province did a fantastic job in responding to Hurricane Igor.

That’s according to Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O’Brien, the former minister, Tom Hedderson, and even Premier Kathy Dunderdale, who have all vigorously defended the provincial government’s post-Igor response. 

But was it really all that? Or was it more a display of gross incompetence, misplaced pride and political opportunism?

Documents obtained by The Clarenville Packet from Public Safety Canada show that the federal government was ready to mobilize with full disaster support, on the day Igor hit. All the province had to do was make the call.

But the call didn’t come. 

The hurricane struck with full force on September 21 2010, wreaking havoc across much of Eastern Newfoundland. Even before the storm had abated, it was apparent from radio coverage that we were facing a crisis situation. And the next day, there were gasps of shock from the premier and a handful of ministers, when they flew over the stricken area.


“The scale of the storm is unprecedented in this province and the magnitude of the infrastructure damage is severe, including many roads and bridges washed out and subsequent infrastructure damaged,” said a provincial government press release, issued September 22. “A number of communities remain isolated and every effort is being made to make contact with these municipalities to determine their individual circumstances.”


Yet, it was not until September 24 – three days later – that assistance was requested from the army. 

In a scrum with media, Premier Dunderdale said this time was needed to “assess” the situation; that chaos would have ensued if the army had been called in right away.

Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O’Brien, who is responsible for Fire and Emergency Services, said much the same thing, to Bill Rowe on VOCM Open Line. And I will use a transcript of O’Brien’s discussion as the basis for this review. I will offer extensive tracts from what he said, while bringing in other voices with alternative points of view. 

You’ve already heard some rather sharp criticism from Rev. Eric Squires, of Catalina. 

“[I’m] really disgusted because we were desperate out here for water and bread,” Squires said to the CBC. “I called [provincial] fire and emergency services to ask if we could get a boat to go across the bay to get some bread and water and they said ‘No, buy what you want and send us the bill.’ And during the same time they turned down [federal] help for us.”

For this entry, I have invited two media people who were close to the story to offer their comments. 

Writer, commentator and community activist Pamela Pardy Ghent is an outspoken individual who has had at least one run-in with the previous premier. She lives on the Burin Peninsula, an area hard hit by Igor, and was heavily involved in the volunteer response. 

Mallory Clarkson is the journalist who researched and wrote the excellent investigative piece in The Packet. She lived in Clarenville at the time, with a front row seat to the destruction caused by Igor. She also interviewed numerous people whose homes were damaged or destroyed and lives uprooted by the storm. Until now, she has not spoken to the media bout Hurricane Igor.

Oh, and I have some additional insight on this as well. I have been working in emergency response since 1997, mainly for the provincial oil and gas operators. My role is communications, but I sit around the table with the entire response team, including logistics, human resources, planning and operations staff. I have taken numerous training courses related to emergency response and the Incident Command System (ICS), participated in about 50 exercises and assisted with several actual incidents. 

Kevin O’Brien opened his call to Open Line by accusing The Packet of being irresponsible in its coverage, though at no point does he state specifically why. He tells us that the province had been tracking the storm system since it formed in the Caribbean. When it was determined that our province would be affected, Fire and Emergency Services were mobilized, he says, and a command centre was put in place, with the involvement of DND. 

“Then we put out warnings to the various communities in regards to the areas we thought would be impacted the most. Once that hurricane event happened, well, the hurricane takes control for a period of time. But even during that time, we responded to certain items of need. Then after that, there is about a 72-hour process that goes through that you assess and evaluate exactly what you need. So, when you have a series of emails between ourselves, the federal government, the Department of National Defence or whatever it may be, they are just offers, that’s all they are. There’s an evaluation process that has to go through to see exactly what’s needed. First and foremost, you don’t need hundreds of people, hundreds of troops, arriving without a plan.”

And here is where O’Brien falls on his face. Fortunately, his fall is cushioned by Dunderdale, who had fallen ahead of him by making similar remarks. I will now hand over to my guest commentators:

Pamela Pardy Ghent:

“72 hours to assess? A man was washed out to sea while standing in his friggin’ driveway. Feet on the ground was an urgent, immediate requirement. We were already in a state of chaos, not bringing in the military sooner didn’t lessen that, it only created more chaos and stress.

“They were not prepared for the storm. CBC was better prepared than our government. The evening before Igor the CBC called me, asking me to make regular check-in’s as the storm progressed. They did that to contacts all over this province. My first call in was something like; it’s windy, phones are crackling and not reliable, but nothing big on the go. Minutes later I was calling them back saying a young fella was in a boat trying to rescue his grandparents from the second story of their home. That I know of; there was no emergency contact point in place (now disaster recovery plans and emergency contingency plans have been designed) for anyone in government. Strategically placed and ready to act highway crews would have helped in our case.

“I’ve heard folks say the military should have been called in prior to Igor, but I don’t believe that. There was no way to predict the scope of what happened and that would have been overkill. However; they should have been called in and/or put on alert by 7 am the morning of Igor. The sun rose on major infrastructure damage - why wait? Bridges could have been built and life resumed much more quickly had that happened. I mean, was there any need for babies to be out of diapers and milk because bridges were down or because people couldn’t get to a gas station, or because there was no gas at all?”

Mallory Clarkson:

“I really don’t think they should have waited three days. I was up in the helicopter on the 22nd with the premier and a couple of ministers, and it looked like bombs were dropped on Random Island. I haven’t been in a war zone so I can’t compare it to that, but it honestly looked like bombs had been dropped… Pretty much every community has a culvert on each side. And everything was blown. None of it looked normal. It was hard to fly over and see it… It was devastating.

“When I was up in the helicopter, you could hear the ministers talking about what they were seeing… they were gasping in shock, though that may not be the right term. The premier actually said, ‘This is the worst that we’ve seen.’ I don’t understand how the Premier could say something like that, then turn around and say, ‘Maybe we should wait to assess the situation.’”

“Even if the province had taken advantage of the offer of 40 pumps, to help drain flooded houses. People’s houses were rotting around them, and a lot of them are now uninhabitable because of the water damage. I really do believe they couldn’t get the water out fast enough… There was a lot of help that was offered. Like, why not accept it? Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

“I think if they actually lived outside of the overpass and experienced this firsthand, they’d see it differently. People in St. John’s didn’t have to go from household to household as I did, hearing people’s stories about how they had lost everything. I can understand how the people on the Avalon might not ‘get it,’ because they were away from where the majority of damage occurred, but for the premier to actually fly across and stop down and talk to people and see the people himself, I’m surprised that the province thought they could handle it. It really frustrates me. 

“Can you imagine being a senior, and being just stuck in your house and your province isn’t doing anything to help you – no food, no water, no electricity, no phone… You’re in a lot of trouble if you have a medical emergency.”

I am reasonably certain that, no matter how hard you look, no matter where you look, you will not find an ICS protocol that says, “Take 72 hours to assess the situation.” This but of fiction was contrived after the fact, to account for that 72-hour gap.

Let’s just say that is normal to bask in a 72-hour assessment period. Presumably, this rule would apply to previous natural disasters in other parts of the country. It doesn’t. In a recent entry, Wallace McLean’s Labradore blog has helpfully collected this information for easy consumption. You can read the full entry here:

Here is a snippet of McLean’s findings: 

- Saguenay Floods, 1996 in Quebec: Canadian Forces were called same day.

- Hurricane Juan, 2003 in Nova Scotia:  Canadian Forces mobilized the same day.

- Severe winter storm, 2010 in Ontario: Canadian Forces help requested one day later.

The emergency response teams that I’ve worked with are guided by the ‘Get Big, Quick’ principle. That is, if a situation could escalate, you call in the entire team, and put additional resources on standby. You prepare for the worst, in case it happens. However, in the case of Igor, we had a full-blown emergency of massive proportions. Still, the province refused to “get big” by calling in the Canadian Forces. 

In the case of Igor, the province did not “Get Big, Quick.” They got “a bit larger, eventually”. In other words, even when assistance was finally requested by the province, it was for a specific task, with limited resources called in. The military were not used to their full potential.

During their response, armed forces personnel were based in Clarenville. Mallory Clarkson met some of them.

“That’s where I got the idea for the story,” Clarkson said. “They were telling me how frustrated they were that they couldn’t do anything; they got their marching orders from the province. This was after the province’s call for help had been made. They were stationed at the Clarenville Event Centre, and were saying they wished they could do more, but their hands were tied. Even when the province put in its request for an engineering troop and helicopters, the soldiers were saying they weren’t doing enough and could do a lot more — they wished they could do more.”

Back to Kevin O’Brien. Bill Rowe feeds him an underhand lob, asking if they didn’t call in support because the province knew what it was doing and didn’t need “a chaotic, disorganized response by well-meaning people jumping in on the problem and causing disorganization.”

Of course, O’Brien hits that stinker out of the park. “Bill, you hit the nail on the head,” O’Brien said. “And that’s exactly what it is. And that’s the reason why we’ve responded so well, because we were well organized, we were well co-ordinated, and we have the expertise in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Not only in our public servants, which I commend, and all the first responders out in that area, such as the fire departments and that kind of stuff, but also your private contractors. You know, just taking an example, we addressed all the breaches – over 100 of them – in 10 days. We had everything back, and we had movement. Now it wasn’t back to perfect conditions, but we had connections made to all the breaches that we had and all the separations that we had, with regards to communities being isolated, within 10 days. I believe that is unprecedented in this country.”

Note the bragging at the end. There was a lot of boasting from government, even during this response. We had Minister Tom Hedderson going in front of the media once or twice a day, gushing about the excellent work that was being done. It was difficult to differentiate essential information from political bafflegab.

I’m not the only person to notice how politicized the response was. 

“In the early days I saw more photo opportunities than actual action,” said Pamela Pardy Ghent. “Just dig through Darin King’s or Clyde Jackman’s Facebook photos from that time and see for yourself. Honestly, while I and others were walking over the busted Long Pond Bridge to get food across for ourselves and for others, or were there to visit family members, or to carry someone stranded across, politicians were there campaigning and asking others (like King of me) to take pictures to prove they were there. King said as much when he said ‘got to get re-elected, you know.’ King and Jackman were on both sides of the broken Long Pond Bridge the day I was there getting stuff over from the Red Cross. They stood, shook hands and took pictures. They interacted with the people. What they didn‘t do was offer to transfer any of the food and staples from one truck to any of the others going to the people who were doing without. But really, we had enough volunteers and didn’t need them. Of course, we would not have turned an extra set of hands away, mind you.”

(For those who missed it, here is what Ghent told me, in November of 2010: “I was on the Long Pond bridge, just after Hurricane Igor, when you had to walk across because there was no traffic allowed, and along comes the politicians… And I’m organizing things for the Red Cross, when (MHA) Darin King tosses me a cell phone... ‘I gotta get re-elected,’ he tells me. ‘Take some pictures.’ And I’m there for the Red Cross, trying to get food out to people. I did it… But now in hindsight, that really ticks me off.”)

Bill Rowe asked O’Brien to respond to criticisms from Rev. Squires: “A certain clergyman has been on record as … saying that when the request for help regarding food, for example, came from a particular community, the emergency response was, ‘Okay, go and get it yourselves and send us the bill.’ What’s your reaction to that?”

“Look, that’s his words,” O’Brien replied. “And that’s fine. I mean, you know, he’s not an expert, and we have expertise. First responders, and I commend them each and every day in regards to what they do, they were probably, with regards to some of the areas that were isolated, that were breached, so you have to use some of their own forms of, I guess, transportation, and it’s easier for them to go get it, and bring it back after the storm, whatever the way you want to put that, Bill. But we had everything, you know, there’s a difference between inconvenience and people in peril. Inconvenience, you don’t have barbecue sauce to put on your steak, when you do a barbecue. I’m not trying to belittle it. But people, we responded well, people didn’t starve to death. We had resources going into the communities – food, supplies, gas – very quickly after that event happened.”

Everything about this answer rubbed Pamela Pardy Ghent the wrong way.

“Remember people had no money or access to it. Even if local stores had grub, not everyone would be granted automatic credit. That’s a fact. Plus, at many local convenience stores, a block of butter costs almost $5 and a loaf of bread (if any was available) can cost $4 or more. Milk is under $4 at Walmart, at smaller stores it can cost double that. Same goes for cans of milk, soup, and so on. If seniors and others on a fixed budget had to buy goods locally for too long, they would have had one very hungry end of the month come cheque day. I know seniors who can’t afford the luxury of buying birthday cards for all their grandchildren. Expect them to shell out double for grub? Get a clue.

“But beyond that, in many areas food just was not available! In Harbour Mille, my father (the local shop keeper) was in a better position than most because he had the foresight to… stock up on staples. Still, that was only for our small community – four other communities in our general area had no stock on toilet paper, water, potatoes, bread, fruit, veggies and milk. Even our store was without many of those items for about four days.

“And what about baby items, things local stores don’t carry? I know of babies who ran out of formula and diapers. I ran out of diapers myself, and my husband (who was working in St. John’s at the time) drove down and threw across diapers, milk and bread, as he wasn’t allowed to drive or walk across at the time.

“I know people in Terrenceville and Grand Le Pierre and English Harbour East who were in worse condition than many of my neighbours. They certainly were not looking for a damn bottle of barbecue sauce for any stinkin' T-Bone dinner. Honestly! Add to all that the fact that some communities lost power for an extended period of time. Food they did have spoiled. I could go on.

“That was one stupid and very ignorant comment for any politician to make in the face of the realities of what many endured. I guess O’Brien has the luxury with his MHA pay to stock up at Costco. Regular Newfoundlanders do not. Clue in, Minister.”

At one point, O’Brien says “this is not a Hollywood movie,” and that the situation was “not pretty.”

“You have to be organized, coordinated, as I said before, to respond to the event in a timely and the best manner that you possibly can,” O’Brien said. “Which we did. We had it well under control within two to three days afterward, and we had all the breaches completed within 10 days.”

At this point, O’Brien is contradicting himself. He and Dunderdale are on record, saying that 72 hours were needed to “assess” the situation. Then he says that it was “well under control within two to three days.” So, what is it? Were they assessing, or repairing? If it’s the latter, why didn’t they call in the army? They knew on day one that 90 communities were isolated by serious road and bridge washouts.

Furthermore, the quality of the breach repair work done in that 10 days was woefully inadequate, according to Clarkson.

“Ten days, to perform repairs? My dear, the roads aren’t fixed yet,” she said. “They say it’s all done, but (it isn’t). This is what I find interesting. Last year they said there were more than 100 roads that we need to fix. This year, they’re saying there’s 100 fixes we need to redo. The Roads on Random Island and on the Bonavista Peninsula haven’t been fixed to an adequate state. Do you know how many bearings I went through this winter in my car, from the potholes? I couldn't say for sure if it was Igor-related potholes or just regular potholes that damaged my car. All I know is that I had new bearings and struts early in 2010 and they had to be replaced already. As for the roads, as late as November 2010, the main culvert through Catalina was still blown. The province said from the beginning that ‘parts were on their way,’ but to wait until months after the storm for an artery road to be fixed is ridiculous.

“Don’t get me wrong, the Transportation and Works crews worked day in and day out to put up the temporary fixes. I just don’t think it should have come to that. Even if they had worked as a team, and allowed the military to go in and make the big fixes, ones that wouldn’t need gravel poured over them multiple times over the winter, then the province would have been able to make some of the permanent fixes to some of the culverts.” 

Bill Rowe asked O'Brien if the province refused to ask for assistance because of the strained relationship between then-premier Danny Williams and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“That’s pure foolishness,” O’Brien said. “And I mean pure foolishness, because, you know, and this government, uh, the premier of the time, Danny Williams, and the premier now will have the heart and soul of Newfoundland and Labrador in their soul. And when it comes down to the Stephen Harpers of the world, whoever it may be in the world, listen, that’s put to the back burner. This is all about the safety of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, in responding to it, and we responded in the best manner that we possibly can.”

Clarkson, Ghent and I disagree on this point. 

“My theory? I think pride got in the way,” Clarkson said. “I personally think — and this is my own opinion — that it came down to a ‘we can do it ourselves’ mindset. Anything But Conservative, right? Our provincial government didn’t see eye to eye with the federal government, but should that stop them from swallowing their pride for the betterment of the people they represent? I love how the Newfoundland people come together to help each other, but it shouldn’t have to come to that. I don’t think that pride should get in the way of our elected officials helping us. Isn’t that one of the reasons we put them in power, to look out for us?”

Ghent echoed that sentiment. “Well, this was at Danny’s time, so ‘ABC hangover’ is perhaps a good way to put it. I’d hate to think ego had anything to do with it, but again, the captain we had was certainly in charge of his ship.”

The hurricane hit on Tuesday, September 21. The province did not formally request help until Friday, September 24. DND had actually composed a letter that it put before the provincial government, practically begging for their signature. By this point, the military were in Nova Scotia, waiting for the go-ahead, and had just turned back toward New Brunswick when the request came through. At roughly the same time, an advance group of officers had already arrived in the province to set up headquarters. 

The moment when Danny Williams relented, and agreed to accept help, is captured in the video clip linked at the top of this entry. It features Danny Williams and Stephen Harper, doing a media scrum while on a tour of the disaster zone. 

“In the last 36 hours or so, we’ve been positioning Canadian Forces assets in place to help deal with some of the more serious situations that’s required,” Harper said. “The premier and I have talked, and we expect to have a request… almost… I guess, now?”

Harper looks at Williams, who obviously still hasn’t formally accepted the offer of help. Williams nods, and says “yes.” It’s a pivotal moment, and an uncomfortable one for the premier, who seems to be caught off guard with cameras rolling. 

And, finally, the armed forces are allowed to come give us a hand.

On this, I give the last word to Mallory Clarkson:

“For a long time, after the military left, I was very angry. When I started going through the almost 300-page Access to Information request, the feeling came back. Until this point, I only thought the province dropped the ball. But to read through the hard proof and see how much could have happened... I was looking around and nothing was being done. You hear all these devastating stories. You meet all these people who lost everything. And the province just sits on their hands, when a lot of people saw that the solution to this problem was fairly simple... I can't believe it.”




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Recent comments

  • Robin Brentnall
    June 23, 2011 - 11:40

    Excellent article. I guess the real reason for not making the call could have been the phone lines were tied up with Danny trying to reschedule his skit on "This Hour Has 22 Minutes".

  • me
    June 23, 2011 - 11:03

    Get A Life!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • W McLean
    June 23, 2011 - 10:18

    And that's just what was revealed with a federal Access request. What would come to light, after about five years of foot-dragging, if someone were to file a provincial request for similar documentation on Kevin O'Brien's end of the chain?