Wanderings – Chicken Little on ice

It was like a slow-motion scene from a movie. Looking out of the second story window, I saw the huge branch drop several feet, and land on the roof of my ‘84 Camero. Ice flew everywhere. I ran downstairs to survey the damage. There was none. Several inches of ice encrusting everything turned out to be a blessing in disguise, which saved my car from damage.

It was a “storm of the century” – the 1998 Ice Storm. Days of ice rain accumulating on everything. Transmission towers and utility poles snapping like twigs. Roads were impassible. Trains were halted. Mass power outages throughout Eastern Ontario and elsewhere.

We were without power for nine days. Thankfully a generator was sourced and we had a little bit of electricity after day six.

A friend who lived at the time in the west end of Kingston remarked he couldn’t understand what we are all complaining about. “What storm,” he asked. His tune changed when he went downtown and saw the devastation.

Another friend without power took a more community-oriented view of the storm. Not wanting his full freezer to go to waste, he threw all the meat on the barbecue for anyone and everyone.

My family came through relatively unscathed: others were less lucky. It took months for normal to return. The Ice Storm laid bare issues with the infrastructure needed to deliver utilities to users. Twenty-five years later it is frustrating to see little has been done to keep the lights on.

Storms are getting more intense, and more frequent. New terms are used like “atmospheric rivers” and “weather bomb.” More storms are named by weather forecasters. Ignoring the 20 second sound bite and kitschy media over-hype of different weather events, I am really concerned about the weather changes and infrastructure.

Since the Ice Storm took place repairs were made to the electrical grid but our utilities are still vulnerable. This is a classic Canadian stance of “if it’s not broken, study an issue to death and do nothing.” The problem is what will break when we have the next weather event? We are constantly putting out infrastructure fires, rather than building something better and more resilient.

Recommendations made after the Ice Storm included putting more critical infrastructure underground. It is more difficult for a falling tree to sever an underground electrical line or internet cable.

There needs to be more interconnections to utility grids. If one utility supply line is cut off, another is readily available – this is known in the tech world as having as multiple redundancies. This has not happened. Where I live, there is one supply line to the electrical grid. We haven’t had a serious outage for a while, but it only takes one vehicle wiping out a roadside pole to put the village in the dark. A redundant connection has been talked of for many years, but there has been no tangible action. Why?

It’s money, of course! Burying these items underground has a significantly large cost. So does adding new connections to the grid. And we have a labour shortage.

Even when utilities maintain existing infrastructure, companies replace like with like. Where I live, older short utility poles were replaced with taller utility poles. Nothing underground, just more of the same. So when another storm hits, the taller poll will crash to the ground with more weight and cause more damage.

I know I am not well prepared if there is a long-term power outage. The last big snowstorm saw a trip to the hardware store to buy flashlights because I had misplaced the ones I thought we already had. I found those old flashlights 10 minutes after returning from the hardware store.

Few people are well prepared, or can afford to be well prepared. How many people have generators nearby, or can plug in a generator to their home? Many homes rely solely on electricity for heat, or need electricity to turn on their heating system. Sure there are emergency plans in place for shelters and the like, but why hasn’t more been done to upgrade our infrastructure? We all pay enough in utility bills surely the money paid could have these systems better prepared. What did these utilities do with all that money we paid?

As our weather patterns change, and we see more extremes in weather, there needs to be more focus on redundancy in our utility systems. We can pay a lot now, or pay a lot more later to fix what is broken. Not to sound like Chicken Little (or not so Little) but the sky is falling, and we’re not prepared.

Originally published in the January 11, 2023 issue of the Morrisburg Leader.