System failure

Gerry Phelan
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It looks like we’ll be talking about electricity woes for some time, but I hope those in power are also pondering something else. We are not prepared to deal with an emergency.

Most towns have emergency plans. Surely now is the time to look back on recent events, see what happened and determine how we can do things better.

Consider the experience with fuel. On blackout weekend, even in the wee hours of the morning, lines of cars crawled through the service stations that had power. People were filling up gas tanks and jerry cans to feed their autos, snowblowers and generators. Several days after the initial outage, many gas pumps were draped in “out of order” signs. Propane was in short supply, again partly due to the electricity outage. The Come By Chance refinery was shut down, and it is the only propane producer on the island. Marine Atlantic’s ferry service had delays caused by stormy weather, so it took days to truck in new supplies. The power outages, storms and abnormally cold temperatures also disrupted the delivery of furnace oil, in some cases for days.

Some in the business believe it’s a capacity problem, that the oil companies should be storing more fuel in strategic locations. It’s time the government gave direction to the industry for fuel storage across the province, and not just in winter. Our experience with hurricanes gives reason to be ready year round, just in case. And shouldn’t at least a designated number of strategically located service stations have backup power to supply the gas to fuel our own generators? It must be done.

Towns and cities need to do more. The warming facilities were welcome, but for some the question was how to get to them. Transportation is obviously needed. I heard some towns urging people to bring their own blankets. Surely this kind of stuff should be available. Municipalities might want to stand back and consider what’s needed in a warming centre and how many such facilities are required. In St. John’s, for example, is one centre at city hall really enough? We heard that one warming centre in the metro area wasn’t warm at all, that the power actually went off and people had to be moved; not great planning there. The facilities should be equipped with generator backup and access to the basic necessities. By the way, these days, plenty of outlets to allow people to recharge their smartphones are essential.

Municipalities might also look at using text or email communications with their citizens. Updates on Twitter and Facebook are great, but pushing information directly would be welcome. They might also consider setting up a system so they know who might require special assistance — those who live alone, the elderly and disabled. Our towns and cities have changed so much; not everyone knows their neighbours anymore. Is there a way to create a data resource that tells civic officials people they should reach out to, instead of just inviting people to come for help if they need it?

Much has already been said about nursing homes apparently not being required to have an alternate supply of power and heat. It’s 2014. I can’t believe such an obvious requirement needs to be legislated, but if it does, so be it.

We now know there will be at least three reviews of the power situation: one dictated by the government, another by the Public Utilities Board and the internal review by Nalcor.

We also need a thorough study of the response to the crisis, addressing all those things that went right and wrong in the impacted communities. We need to identify the specific failures, and quickly rectify the problems.

Given where we live, and what we have experienced, it is time to do a re-think, to make sure the emergency plans are in line with the 21st century. A friend with experience in such matters wrote me last week to say “the whole system of preparation and planning needs to be ‘turned on its ear’ as we try and deal with ‘lessons learned.’”

Let’s do it.


Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former

broadcaster. He can be reached at

Organizations: Marine Atlantic, Public Utilities Board

Geographic location: Chance

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