Watching the strips of roofing peel off the top of the Nalcor building on Tuesday, I was struck by the thought that there’s got to be a financial reckoning coming — not only a financial reckoning for the storms we’re seeing so frequently in recent years, but for the storms we haven’t yet seen.
Chantal, Gabrielle, Igor and now Leslie. It’s surprising how frequently a named storm is now a part
of Newfoundland’s September weather experience. Hurricane Juan deked into Nova Scotia and then P.E.I., as the bulk of Leslie’s rain did this time around — but that’s more a matter of happenstance than it is of good planning.
There have always been tropical storms, post-tropical storms and Nor’easters in this province — and certainly in the Maritime provinces as well. But I can’t remember ever watching a weather forecast where the weather schematic suggested that, once a storm had passed Bermuda, it would enter warmer water — and not even just warmer water, but an area of ocean where the surface water was warm enough to actually fuel a tropical storm back into a storm at hurricane strength. You hear about that happening in the Gulf of Mexico — not so much in the waters just south of Newfoundland.
You just have to look at the types of damage we’ve seen in the past few years to get an idea that we’re into something of a different kind of storm cycle: in 2007, roads failed during Chantal because highway culverts that had always been big enough to handle all possible runoff (some of them as much as 30 years old), weren’t able to handle Chantal’s rainfall, causing roads to overflow and collapse. The insured damage bill? Something like
Igor? Similar problems. Bridges and culverts designed to face what engineers expected would be the largest runoff possible over 100 years (the “100-year storm”) failed to contain Igor’s downpour and runoff, and the damage was much, much greater than Chantal, although it occurred in similar places: often where watercourses met roads. In the end, it was more than $200 million in damage and Igor now holds the record as the most destructive hurricane to hit the island.
Igor and tropical storm Leslie shared some interesting characteristics: both managed to do substantial damage to trees in the city of St. John’s, tearing off very large limbs and completely uprooting full-grown specimens that had survived all other winter and summer storms for their entire lifetimes. It’s no guaranteed measure that Leslie and Igor are newer, stronger storms — but it is worth noting that trees with 50 or more years in lifespan were uprooted by both.
The electrical power system? Leslie was short and to the point, but still managed to cut power to more than 45,000 people, some of whom were without power three or even four days after the storm ended.
And truth be told, Igor and Leslie were pretty small on the hurricane scale: Igor was a strong Category 4 hurricane a week before it reached Newfoundland, but it faded quickly before reaching Bermuda, and didn’t strengthen the way Leslie was forecast to do.
Leslie? Pretty spectacular damage for a post-tropical storm, but that could easily have been different if she hadn’t sped through town as if she had somewhere else to be. If the same winds had hung on for a few more hours, we’d still all be draped in stripped siding and downed electrical wires. A Category 2 or 3 hurricane would have meant total grid chaos.
And all of that must have governments, insurance companies and electrical utilities scratching their heads a bit.
The provincial government was quick to cite the reaction to Leslie as a sign of success. All right, you can let them have a kudo or two because things turned out so much better than the absolute shambles of a reaction they were properly chastised for after Igor.
But it wasn’t really that much of a storm and it showed how much damage a truly small storm can do.
If anything, it points out that we’re far from ready to declare ourselves prepared for the next big storm.
If you were to give grades, you’d have to say that the cities of St. John’s and Mount Pearl reacted well, as did Newfoundland Power — emergencies were dealt with, roads were closed, repairs were made quickly — but key in that message is that what they did was to react to failings as they occurred.
If the current trend continues, as a province, we’ll have to do a lot more than that: we’ll have to consider where there are weaknesses in our existing infrastructure, how we’re going to fix them and how we’re going to pay for those fixes.
Engineers who looked at the damage from Igor and Chantal know that, in significant ways, we were our own enemies. Limited-sized culverts turned roads into dams they were never meant to be — and they failed. We put the culverts in and narrowed watercourses that, on their own, could handle the runoff.
If we’re going to continue having a major named storm, on average, every second year, it will not be enough to simply repair the existing system.
We’ll actually need a better one.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.