Responding to the Ice Storm Crisis in the Acadian Peninsula

Between January 24 and 26, 2017, a snow and freezing rain storm moved across the Province of New Brunswick. The size of the impacted area was large; the storm crossed the entire province but delivered the heaviest blow to the east-northeast area of the province. The Environment Canada weather station in Bas-Caraquet recorded 30 mm of rain and another 8 cm of snow between January 24 and January 26, 2017. The impact of the freezing rain was catastrophic. NB Power reports there was between 50 and 100 mm of ice build-up on trees and equipment in the Acadian Peninsula. Well beyond the normal inconveniences created by freezing rain in the winter months, the length of the storm and the resulting heavy build-up of ice led to significant infrastructure damage, most notably to trees and power infrastructure. This winter storm prompted the largest restoration effort in NB Power history, supported by a coordinated emergency response from the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization (NB EMO), the Canadian Red Cross and the Canadian Armed Forces. All available NB Power resources were dedicated to storm response. At peak, 380 tree, pole and line crews conducted damage assessment, made repairs to infrastructure, cleared blocked roads and restored power. A logistics team took care of crew lodging, meals and other items. Customer outreach teams including staff and senior leadership visited warming centres to update customers on restoration efforts and assisted Armed Forces members with door-to-door visits. Additionally, it is also important to note the role of social capital in contributing to the resiliency of residents during the ice storm in 2017. During emergencies, social capital can grow as new friendships develop, and as young people become more engaged in their communities and develop an interest in volunteering. These positives aside, social capital cannot be considered as a substitute for official emergency services.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

In less than seven years, the province has experienced several emergency weather events resulting in damage and the initiation of emergency services and, in many cases, a Disaster Financial Assistance (DFA) program. These disasters include:

  • December 2010: Charlotte and York Counties experienced major flooding due to heavy rain, resulting in $13.8 million in damages.
  • December 2010: Two storm surges impacted the east and northeast coasts of the province. The first caused $1.7 million in damage due to high winds, high tides and waves. The second, caused over $1.3 million in damage. Heavy surf affected the eastern seaboard of the province resulting in damaged homes, washed-out roads and power outages.
  • December 2013: A Christmas-time ice storm pelted the southern area of the province with 24 to 36 hours of snow and freezing rain. The storm led to power outages to more than 80,000 NB Power customers
  • July 2014: Hurricane Arthur passed over New Brunswick as a post tropical storm with heavy rain and winds that gusted as high as 100 km/hour. The storm caused road closures, infrastructure damage, washouts, localized flooding and fallen trees across the province. Total damages were estimated at $12.5 million.
  • December 2014: A Nor’easter bringing heavy snow and rain across several regions caused $10.3 million in damage. Fifty-six roads across the province were impacted by flooding, washout or water over the road.
  • January 2017: A snow and freezing rain storm moved across the Province, impacting a large area of the province

These recent events clearly indicate that climate change has been and will continue to impact the Acadian peninsula in the form of extreme weather, including more extreme precipitation events, more rain in place of snow, more and longer heat waves and storm surges. The Province recognizes the importance of understanding the causes, frequency, severity and consequences of climate change in order to safeguard infrastructure, livelihoods, and natural resources. And as such, the Province has committed to strengthening its research, data collection, and modelling capacity in order to better support decision-making.

Identifying Actions

The Province has recognized the need to be proactive with respect to mitigation and adaptation efforts as it relates to climate change and associated extreme weather events has already been acknowledged by the Province in its Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP). Hazards and disaster risks have always been a concern; however climate change is driving the need to adapt to more intense and frequent events. Traditionally, responses to disasters have been reactive, but recent experiences have shown the benefit of investing in proactive and preventative measures. Disaster risk reduction and adaptation efforts can complement one another to buffer society from climate-related impacts and better position communities to reduce and manage disaster impacts more broadly. Additionally, land-use planning is a powerful tool in helping to reduce the impacts of natural disasters, and can inform decisions about if and where to rebuild during disaster recovery. The CCAP recognizes that climate risks and adaptation planning can be comprehensively incorporated into provincial decision-making; however, while the provincial government has an important role to play in building New Brunswick’s resilience to climate change, many of the most important decisions will be made at the local level. Community planners, property owners, local governments, First Nations, infrastructure owners, businesses, community and environmental groups, and resource managers all need important climate and adaptation information and tools for guidance. The Province has developed action items that fall within six broad goals, including Understand climate change impacts; Build climate-resilient infrastructure; Support community adaptation planning; Adapt natural resources and agriculture; Reduce climate-related hazards; and Reduce climate change impacts on public health.

Implementation

A total of 51 recommendations are provided in the Summary of Ice Storm Review 2017. The NB Power Lessons Learned report highlights 10 key actions that were to be implemented starting November 2017, with other action item timeframes to be determined in consultation with NB EMO. Action items were developed from the key learnings and observations noted in the review. Some example actions include:

  • Greater emphasis and outreach with pre-season preparedness and safety campaign in rural communities, coordinated with local leaders, first responders and NB EMO to ensure customers are informed and prepared prior to storm season.
  • Simplify customer restoration updates with greater emphasis on visuals and photographs that explain sequence of events to restore power.
  • Create simple handouts for field staff with visual explanations of a variety of circumstances that occur during extended power outages and the role of customers. (i.e.: repairing broken masts, unplugging major appliances in the home, disconnecting breakers.)
  • Consider working with NB EMO to create a dedicated emergency broadcast station to provide essential information to New Brunswickers in times of crisis
  • Review NB Power assessment process to provide more accurate estimated restoration times and better upfront data.
  • Ensure NB Power assessors are equipped with appropriate tools to conduct their work and communicate requirements.
  • As part of a utility-wide modernization project, NB Power expects to propose investments in advanced metering infrastructure, including smart meters, with the potential to help crews locate and diagnose outages more quickly during storm and other events.
  • Review how assessment efforts/ storm management and crew movements are communicated to customers to facilitate understanding of work flow.
  • Review storm effort with a goal of clarifying roles and responsibilities with partner agencies to ensure efficient and effective response to future storms.

Further, the CCAP outlines 109 actions that are aimed in improving community resilience and safeguard New Brunswickers against the increasing impacts of climate change.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

Both NB Power and the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization (NBEMO) have conducted after-action reports on previous weather-related emergency events. In their respective reports on the 2017 ice storm, references are made to improvements that have been made to emergency planning, protocols and organization. Lessons learned as a result of the 2017 New Brunswick ice storm include:

  • Recognize the symptoms of climate change that will continue to deliver storms and other challenges against which we must grow more resilient;
  • Acknowledge our society’s tremendous reliance on electricity to sustain our daily lives;
  • Realize that we, as individuals, must heed the warnings and make the effort to ready ourselves with supplies for self-sufficiency for a period of time until help can be mobilized;
  • Note the high degree of complexity associated with emergency response and the requirement for good communication, cooperation and tolerance in order that operations run smoothly;
  • Understand why emergency planning is so critical at all levels: individual, local, regional and provincial;
  • Recognize the advantages of formal local government structures in helping to organize and represent its residents at the community level;
  • Appreciate the importance of communication networks and see the negative impacts when those networks are not available to us;
  • Know we can rely on our friends and neighbours to band together to offer support; and,
  • Have learned many lessons about the strengths and weaknesses of our emergency services network that can be applied to improve our response when we are challenged by a crisis in the future.

These lessons and the current state of heightened awareness of the communities vulnerabilities cannot be wasted. Individual citizens, communities, governments and volunteer organizations cannot procrastinate efforts to enhance emergency preparedness.

Next Steps

The Province’s CCAP is a commitment that New Brunswick will do its part on climate change by way of a made-in-New Brunswick approach to meeting the province’s particular needs. The CCAP integrates the need to consider the increasing impacts of extreme weather events in developing adaptation actions that help to reduce vulnerability and increase resiliency in the face of climate change. The significant work that has been undertaken by communities, individuals and governments are reasons for optimism in the face of the challenge presented to us by climate change and the broad scope of actions required. The expanded efforts begin now and will continue over the long-term. It is anticipated that the implementation of the CCAP will take time and that there will be challenges along the way, but that ultimately with the full participation of all New Brunswickers the commitments can be achieved.