Clarity during ice storm questioned

Residents addressed their concerns at the Etobicoke Civic Centre regarding Hydro's communication with residents during the ice storm | Photo by Ian Burns Residents addressed their concerns at the Etobicoke Civic Centre regarding Hydro's communication with residents during the ice storm | Photo by Ian Burns

Ian Burns
News Reporter

Residents were respectful but firm when expressing concerns at a meeting dealing with Toronto Hydro’s response to the 2013 ice storm held on March 6 at the Etobicoke Civic Centre.

On Dec. 21, 2013, Toronto experienced one of the worst winter storms in its history as freezing rain, ice pellets, and severe wind pounded the region, breaking countless trees and leading to massive power outages, some lasting more than a week.

As a result of the storm, the City of Toronto and Toronto Hydro have assebled an independent review panel to analyze the utility company’s response to the storm.

The panel will look at emergency preparedness, public outreach during the storm, and storm cleanup.

The Etobicoke residents who addressed the panel took issue with the city’s communication response, emergency preparations, and even the structure of the panel.

Etobicoke resident Catherine Hopewell argued that one of the biggest problems that arose during the storm was communication with the public.

“Hydro has a published emergency number that was impossible to get through to,” she said.

Since people were without power, they were unable to gain access to their televisions, radios, and mobile devices to see what the status of the clean up was, she explained.

Hopewell, who said she “was without power for eight days,” also noted that the staffing of the city’s emergency hotline was inadequate to handle the number of calls made.

Toronto Hydro should have “triaged” the calls, by having calls re-directed by the nature of the emergency to get better response, she said.

York resident Jim Lane agreed with Hopewell’s assessment about communications.

“I think the problem there is staffing, more than anything,” said Lane. “It’s not a computer problem, there’s just not enough people to pick up the phone.”

Lane emphasized the lack of emergency preparedness for the storm, in particular Toronto Hydro’s lack in the trimming of trees as well as checking for flaws in the energy distribution system, such as holes in the wires.

“We seem to be putting a lot more emphasis on what do we do when the lights go out rather than doing something to see that they don’t,” said Lane.

Sean Conway, a member of the panel who chaired the Etobicoke consultation, noted that many of the submissions showed that communications between Toronto Hydro and the affected population was a big issue.

“We need to look at the best ways to communicate and keep people up to date with relevant information,” he said.

Tarsem Sharma, program coordinator of the Electrical Engineering Control Systems program at Humber, said the ice storm’s major impact on the electrical system was the weight the ice put on the distribution wires. “The wires get heavy and begin to weigh down the poles,” said Sharma. “Then the poles collapse onto the ground.”

Sharma also recommends that trees should be cut to ensure they don’t weigh down electrical lines. “They really shouldn’t put trees near power lines,” he said.

Conway agreed with Sharma’s assessment. “Vegetation management is a big issue,” he said. “When trees are covered in ice it causes problems.”

According to Conway, the report should be finished within two months, and then will be presented to the Toronto Hydro board of directors as well as city council.