Anatomy of a disaster response

Mallory
Mallory Clarkson
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How the provincial government handled requests for federal assistance following Hurricane Igor

A military helicopter arrives in Trouty days after Hurricane Igor.

The provincial government said it could handle the situation.

When Hurricane Igor walloped the eastern part of the province last September 21, wind speed and rainfalls were so intense weather instruments were unable to keep accurate measurements.

What they did determine, however, was that that wind reached speeds over 170 km an hour and in some areas, the rainfall exceeded 230 mm.

Most of the major damage was concentrated to the 16,000 square km area that encompassed the Burin and Bonavista peninsulas.

There were over 100 breaks in main roads and secondary roads.

 As the storm subsided, the provincial government promised to provide "full help" to residents in need.

“We are prepared to throw all resources at this as soon as we are in a position to be able to do so,” said then Premier Danny Williams during a press conference on Sept. 21 last year.

“As soon as we’re in a position to see what the damage is, and assess it, you know our crews will be on it immediately.”

To deal with the aftermath, Williams said the province would hire additional engineering services to assess the damage.

Over 330 transportation department employees, along with a dozen private contractors from around the province, were tasked to assess and repair the damaged roads.

Almost 90 communities were isolated when roads and bridges were washed away, and most of eastern Newfoundland was without power for days after the storm.

Transportation Minister Tom Hedderson reported in an interview immediately following the hurricane that there were some “very serious breaches” on both the Trans Canada Highway, secondary and local roads.

He noted repairs had to be approached from multiple fronts.

Hedderson was also the acting Municipal Affairs Minister and Minister Responsible for Fire and Emergency Services at the time.

“The main thing right now is to establish the basic (road) links .” Hedderson told the Packet in an interview the day after the storm.

He said the province had the situation under control.

However, documents obtained by the Packet through the Freedom of Information Act (FIA) tell a different story.

It was only after much prompting by the federal government that the province finally submitted a formal request for assistance.In fact, the DND went so far as to forward a letter to the province, seeking Hedderson’s signature, so they could begin deploying resources.

Ready to help

Within hours of Igor hitting Newfoundland’s shores, the federal government was ready to help — even before a formal Request For Assistance (RFA) was received from the Newfoundland and Labrador government.

Public Safety Canada sent requests to many federal departments asking what services or supplies could be provided to the province to help with relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts.

An intra-agency meeting of the Regional Emergency Management Coordinating Committee (REMCC) was held the afternoon of Sept. 21. Representatives of Public Safety Canada, Environment and National Defense departments, and the provincial government noted resources were on standby.

Captain Michael Pretty of the Canadian Forces offered to have 180 staff deployed in six to 10 hours and the HMSC St. John’s and two helicopters mobilized.

The Canadian Coast Guard had 36 generators (125-700 watt) and 45 water removal pumps, with operators, available.

The province also had access to the national emergency stockpile of food.

The province declined all these offers.

 

After the storm

While federal agencies were preparing to send assistance, the provincial government believed they could handle it.

According to a situation report from the Government Operations Centre (GOC) dated Sept. 21, the province said it had sufficient experience to deal with the expected consequences of Igor.

In recent history the only other hurricane or tropical storm to cause major problems for Newfoundland and Labrador was 2007 tropical storm Chantal.

Chantal cost the government around $28 million in infrastructure repairs. An RECMM report dated Sept. 21 said 2007’s storm would “pale in comparison to hurricane Igor.”

Chantal brought more than 150 mm of rain, which caused significant flooding in the St. John's and the South Coast.

Some roads and highways were damaged due to flooding, but most reopened the next day.

Igor was a much larger force, with greater impact. The province knew it would cost a considerable amount to make infrastructure repairs. The morning of Sept. 22, Hedderson sent a request for financial help.

The morning after

At a 10 a.m. teleconference Sept. 22, the REMCC confirmed the province had submitted a request for financial assistance.

“I wish to submit, on behalf of the province, a request for funding consideration to assist with damages occurred as a result of Hurricane/tropical storm Igor,” stated Minister Hedderson in the request.

“Substantial damages were incurred and are estimated to be well over $1 million, which would therefore trigger assistance from the Government of Canada.”

Money aside, the province believed it had sufficient resources to deal with the aftermath.

At 8:22 a.m. Sept. 22, a DND update noted, "Although there is extensive damage to Central and Eastern NL and the Burin and Bonavista Peninsulas, the situation is under control by the provincial authorities."

That afternoon, the Premier and several cabinet ministers flew over the Burin and Bonavista Peninsulas to view the damage. Provincial authorities would be conducting site assessments.

Almost 90 communities were recorded as isolated because of road breaches.

The province anticipated some road connections would take two to three weeks to restore. (See related sidebar for chronology).

As night fell on Sept. 22, authorities still didn't have a complete picture of the damage.

Day Three

Joey’s Lookout in Gambo collapsed on Sept. 23. That morning, the federal government noted in a REMCC conference call that there were gas and food shortages, battery depletions, fuel issues and a man was still missing on Random Island.

Again, the federal government reiterated its offer of two ships, five helicopters and an engineering team, as well as other support..

It was also noted in a GOC situation report that lack of electrical power in some areas was “degrading the ability of these communities to communicate with the emergency services.”

The report also noted managing the situation “seems to be beyond the ability of the province to mitigate in the short term.”

At 11 a.m. NDT, on Sept. 23, DND’s ships, helicopters and engineers were standing by — just waiting on a signed request from the province.

By this time, food supplies were getting low in communities, private citizens were using their own boats to make medical runs for insulin and other medical needs – a couple of people had been airlifted from Random Island and the Southwest Arm via private helicopters supplied by local businessmen – and there was still no access to the Bonavista Peninsula.

Around 8,500 residents were without power and 30 communities remained isolated.

Military moves

A GOC situation report at noon on the Sept. 23 stated DND was deploying a team to St. John’s, which would be available to do engineering study and assessment should a request from the province be received.

At that point, DND had two ships, five helicopters, 60 foot bridges available, and the HMCS St. John's standing by to provide food, water and fuel to affected areas.

The GOC report noted, however, "The province has not accepted the HMCS St. John's assistance and DND is awaiting reply on other equipment offered."

While the province was deliberating over its request for assistance, it was evident the military was anxious to get moving.

An e-mail circulated within the organization noted, "While exact details of Newfoundland's request are not precisely known, CO has asked urgently for a draft statement where additional details could be added as they become known."

The e-mail also noted, "Canadian Forces will be deployed into the affected areas to help, among other things, clear roadways of trees and other debris, and to restore power and essential services."

At 1:30 p.m. Sept. 23, Public Safety Canada circulated a warning order to other federal departments. The warning order was not an official request for help, but a notice to federal agencies that the province might need assistance.

“The Acting Minister of Municipal Affairs believes the current situation requires resources beyond those available to the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador,” stated the document.

“The Government of NL, through Fire and Emergency Services Agency, has identified several critical requirements for which we are seeking federal assistance.”

Those "critical requirements" outlined in the document, included: delivery of critical supplies, such as food, water, medical items and fuel, as well as provision of medical evacuation as needed.

On the list of "potential" support that might be needed, the province mentioned:

assistance to Newfoundland Power in lifting power line poles and assistance in moving power crews, materials and equipment to make repairs to the power grid in isolated communities; the delivery of generators and re-supply of fuel to main communication nodes; assistance with bridging and road repairs; and transport of engineering analysis teams, as required.

The same document pointed out the two peninsulas were isolated and running low on essential supplies, and access to services was also severely hampered.

In fact, the warning order was almost word-for-word a copy of a draft RFA sent to the province that morning.

E-mails included in the FIA request indicate the province asked for a draft RFA. Captain Michael Pretty forwarded such a document to the province at 11:46 a.m. Sept. 23.

“Once signed, scan and e-mail to me and I will send to appropriate people,” he wrote.

It was more than 24 hours later, however, before the province submitted its first official request for help to the federal government.

And only a few of the warning order items were listed.

The official RFA was sent by the province to the federal Department of Public Safety at 2:07 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 24.

It asked, specifically, for “Sea King helicopters and the ship-based naval support necessary to maintain operation of said helicopters.

“For greater certainty, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador is requesting no other assistance from the DND at this time," the province stated in its request.

The date was Sept. 24, the same day Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew into the province and visited Trouty and Random Island to get a look at the damage.

The letter from the province continued, “It is explicitly understood that 100 per cent of the costs involved for the utilization of the requested resources outlined above will be reimbursed to the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador by the Government of Canada.”

According to a situation report that day from the provincial Government Operations Centre, transportation department workers were making good progress on reconnecting isolated communities and more federal assistance wouldn’t be needed.

In the same report it was also noted that the availability of food was becoming an increasing issue for isolated communities. However, the provincial government did not follow up on offers of access to the emergency food supply.

 

Then, just before 7 p.m. on Sept. 24, another bridge on the Burin Peninsula was deemed unsafe. The province decided to send off an additional RFA. This time, the request would be for a combat engineering squadron.

The RFA stated, “In light of new developments this evening and the ongoing fluidity of the situation in the aftermath of Hurricane Igor, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador is formally requesting the deployment of military assets that, I understand, the Federal Government has placed on standby in the event that they be needed.

“By way of this correspondence, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador is requesting that such military resources as are currently being deployed or advanced towards Newfoundland continue to move into the province.”

Meanwhile, the Canadian Forces base at Gagetown, New Brunswick, had mobilized equipment and personnel towards Newfoundland.

They arrived at the Marine Atlantic terminal in Nova Scotia, only to have to turn back - the ferry was full and the military convoy could not be accommodated.

Federal officials scrambled to find a solution.

An official from Public Safety contacted Marine Atlantic, to secure passage for 137 troops and 37 military vehicles. The convoy left North Sydney on the MV Smallwood at 11 p.m. NDT on Sept. 24, arrived in Argentia Sept. 25 at 2 p.m. NDT. They began repair efforts 36 hours later.

Operation Llama

According to a situation report from GOC dated Sept. 25, the involvement of the Canadian Forces assets was expected to expedite the recovery efforts and gain access to isolated communities.

Only three tasks were assigned through Operation Llama: bridge placements in Trouty and Petite Forte, and to bag and transport portable water.

According to the deputy commanding officer for the Gagetown regiment, Maj. Shawn Groves, there were limitations to the military’s capabilities.

“We were limited first by our manpower and second by our lift capacity — basically trucks and the amount of bridging that was appropriate for this environment — that we could bring here on short order,” he told the Packet last October.

Groves added the military had to leave after finishing repairs on the two bridges because they completed their mandate and had run out of bridging material.

Military helicopters were also used to transport food on behalf of the Red Cross.

Three navy vessels contacted and assisted 40 communities on the Bonavista and Burin Peninsulas.

In addition to construction of bridges, military personnel distributed 95,000 litres of fuel, 60,000 litres of water, 74,842 kg food and 18,143 kg of household items.

The closeout parade, signifying the end of the Canadian Forces post-Igor operation in Newfoundland and Labrador was on Oct. 6. Of the 1000 forces personnel involved in Operation Llama, 200 were reservists from this province.

EDITORIAL: Too little too late

Organizations: Trans Canada Highway, Fire and Emergency Services, The Packet Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Municipal and Provincial Affairs Works, Services and Transportation Government of Canada Public Safety Department

Geographic location: Eastern Newfoundland, Trouty, Random Island Clarenville Bonavista Bonavista Peninsula Burin Peninsula Trinity Sunnyside

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Recent comments

  • Geoff Meeker
    June 19, 2011 - 13:54

    This is a fine piece of investigative reporting. Congratulations to Mallory and her editor on getting this together. Minister O'Brien has accused you of being "irresponsible" in publishing this, which is ridiculous and insulting. The story is a straightforward account of what was contained in the emails, in chronological order, with no sensationalism or spin. What's "irresponsible" about that? Perhaps O'Brien is upset that the painful truth of his government's failed response is getting out there.