By Michael Tutton and Keith Doucette
Opposition politicians and the mayor of a Nova Scotia municipality devastated by floods say the province should order an external review of the response to the recent disaster.
Both of Nova Scotia’s opposition parties, along with two flooding experts, were in agreement Thursday about the need for the review to be carried out by an outside expert.
“If we are going to achieve what we need to, we need to have climate experts, we need to have independent experts come in and help modernize our emergency management system,” Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said. Churchill called the current system “outdated” because it was designed before the province became subject to frequent extreme weather events.
NDP member Gary Burrill, the former party leader, said it all boils down to confidence in the system. “Public confidence would be deepened and better ensured by having an independent external review,” he said.
On Wednesday, Premier Tim Houston suggested that he was having senior officials conduct an internal review and look into the possibility of allowing municipal emergency management officials to send out emergency alerts directly. Currently Ready Alert requests have to pass through the province.
“I’ve instructed EMO to meet with fire chiefs, police chiefs, municipalities … and have a frank discussion about how we can move forward and decentralize, and to what extent they would want that,” he said.
Among the issues in the flooding response, firefighters have criticized a two-hour delay between the first call for a public alert from the volunteer fire department in Brooklyn, N.S., and the transmission of the alert by the provincial Emergency Management Office at 3:06 a.m. on July 22.
The RCMP have said two vehicles were swept off a road into a hayfield near Brooklyn, located northwest of Halifax, on July 22 between 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. Two six-year-old children – Colton Sisco and Natalie Harnish – died, as did 14-year-old Terri-Lynn Keddy and 52-year-old Nicholas Holland.
Mayor Abraham Zebian, whose municipality of West Hants includes Brooklyn, said an independent review is needed to establish the facts on the emergency alert and on inadequate cellular service in the area, which slowed communication among first responders.
As for the premier’s suggestion of having municipal emergency officials directly send alerts, “West Hants welcomes improvements to the alert system,” Zebian said in an email, “but we do not accept passing the buck on to municipalities.”
Blair Feltmate, director of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, echoed the call for an external review, saying there were clear signals of wider problems with Nova Scotia’s flooding response system.
His centre gave Nova Scotia a grade of C in a 2019 study assessing provinces’ flooding preparedness. It noted the province was the only one in Atlantic Canada that delegates responsibility for flood plain mapping to local governments and that the province “does not provide incentives for the relocation of developments from flood plain zones.”
In an interview Thursday, Feltmate said it’s fine to delegate responsibility to local officials during flooding, but those officials “must be given training and resources to do the job, and on (an) annual basis there should be a provincewide review to ensure resources are up to date and adequate.”
He also called on the province to create a “chief resiliency officer” reporting directly to the premier, in light of the “trifecta of flooding, wildfires and extreme heat” that have hit the province in the past year.
Doug McNeil, an independent consultant who wrote a 2019 study on flooding in 23 Ontario municipalities, said an external review could look at less obvious issues, such as what data the emergency managers have to work with.
“Flood plain maps are hugely important to know where your gaps are in responding,” he said in an interview Thursday. “You can’t eliminate human error, but part of the problem is, what data were you relying on?”
John Lohr, Nova Scotia’s minister responsible for the Emergency Management Office, confirmed following cabinet Thursday that Houston had ordered an internal review of the system. Asked whether an independent review was needed, Lohr didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “We will take this first step and see where we end up. We are willing to look at every aspect of it (alert response).”
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