Too little too late

Barbara Dean-Simmons
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They are interesting pieces of paper.

Two very succinctly-written pages, in a June 7 press release from the Department of Municipal Affairs, advise citizens of the province that hurricane season is approaching.

Forecasters, the release notes, are predicting an active hurricane season, with 12 to 18 named storms possible.

While most hope last year's Hurricane Igor was a 'once in a lifetime' event, the only thing we know with any degree of certainty is that we will get hit by one or more major storms over the next six months.

And we have to be prepared.

The department of municipal affairs has several suggestions for us. The include the standard advice: keep an emergency kit and develop an emergency plan, know all local emergency numbers, check your insurance policy to ensure you're covered for fire and emergency situations, remove dead tree branches, ensure your sump pumps are in working order and keep your drains free of debris

it's all very interesting useful and valuable information for individuals and municipalities. And most of it is common sense.

And after living through Igor, most of us should have an emergency plan in order for our homes, and towns.

But what about the province?

Because as interesting as that two-page press release might be, a more interesting read is the nearly 300 pages of documents the Packet obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that detail the chain of events during and after Igor.

Our exclusive story in this week's edition outlines some of the dialogue and information that was passing between the provincial government and federal emergency services the day of, and days following, the storm.

It is blindingly apparent that the province was not prepared to cope with the disaster. What's also alarming is the province failed to realize the magnitude of the disaster and the scope of damage, and delayed in accessing the help that was readily available from the federal government via the Public Safety Department and the Department of National Defence.

The Canadian military were making preparations to help even before Igor made landfall.

Public Safety and Canadian Military appeared to be the first to recognize that the damage caused by the storm was beyond the capabilities of the province to handle by itself.

The military was on standby for more than three days, in fact, before they finally got the signal to move in to help.

It was only after much prodding and prompting from the federal government that the province finally sent out the official S.O.S. on the afternoon of Sept. 24.

Even then, the province did not ask for everything it should have. The feds had offered helicopters, support ships, portable footbridges and soldiers on the ground to help with the clean up.

The province said all we needed were the helicopters and support ships.

Several hours later, as another bridge gave way, the province added a second official request - for military engineers to help install temporary bridges.

Meanwhile, citizens - among them the elderly and sick - were struggling to clean up the debris around the flood damaged homes and properties, coping without power, and worried about how to get medicine, fresh water and food.

We all had lessons to learn from Hurricane Igor.

Individual citizens know now they have to be prepared - with sufficient supplies of propane, candles, bottled water and non-perishable food to last for a week or more. They know they need a backup power supply in case the power is shut down, and they know they should keep the car filled with gas, all the time, just in case.

What they also need to know, however, is that they can depend on their provincial government to be even more prepared for disaster.

In September, 2010, the province dropped the ball on many fronts.

It failed to comprehend the extent of the damage. Even after the premier and cabinet ministers flew over the damaged areas the day after the hurricane, they dragged on a decision to bring in the military.

The soldiers were ready to roll and could have been on the ground almost immediately, and certainly by the morning of Sept. 23 to help citizens with the task of cleaning up their properties, to deploy food and water, to supply generators and help speed up the process of temporary road fixes and hydro line repairs.

In our editorial a couple of weeks after Igor we asked for a complete review of the province's emergency preparedness protocol and plan - an examination of what went wrong and what went right during and after Igor.

Up to this point there's been no talk of an official analysis.

Thanks to the documents we've uncovered, there might not be much need of one.

The 247 pages of copies of e-mails and notes tell the tale.

The provincial government, faced with a disaster, simply did too little, too late.

The question now is, are they better prepared for the next one?

Organizations: Department of Municipal Affairs, Public Safety Department, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Fire and Emergency Services Department of National Defense federal government Hurricane Igor The Packet

Geographic location: Random Island, Bonavista, Bonavista Peninsula Harcourt Sunnyside Trinity Trouty

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