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Weathering the storm: Emergency and crisis planning lessons from recent weather events in Atlantic Canada

|February 25, 2020

There’s a saying in Atlantic Canada—if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.

While this is a quaint—albeit very true—notion, the region has recently faced weather that has gone from an inconvenience to a crisis situation very quickly. As communicators who have lived through these recent events, we wanted to see what we could learn and apply to our clients both in the region and around the world.

The team in St. John’s recently hosted a breakfast discussion on crisis and emergency communications, where we unpacked and evaluated a few natural disasters that have resulted in crisis scenarios in Atlantic Canada over the past year. Here are our top takeaways.

Event 1: Hurricane Dorian

Hurricane Dorian made landfall in Nova Scotia on September 7, 2019, bringing Category 2 hurricane-strength sustained winds of 155 km/h and causing significant damage. Trees were downed, streets were closed or impassable, properties were damaged and destroyed. The event even featured a viral video of a crane that toppled on a partially built condo development. The aftermath was massive power outages across the province and significant disruptions to daily life as a local state of emergency was declared.

What worked

Sharing of preparedness information
Sharing of preparedness messages (i.e. Red Cross, Emergency Health Services, Emergency management organizations) before the storm hit was effective in keeping the public informed and safe from the start of the disruption.

Timely activation of emergency operations centres
The coordinated operational response across all emergency response agencies and levels of government was key to starting and ending strong from one, unified command post. The teams were on-site well before the storm hit and kept well staffed throughout.

Coordinated communications from the Emergency management organizations
All levels of government, emergency response, and Nova Scotia Power spoke with one voice at coordinated updates and briefings. Updates were accessible on social media through Facebook Live and other media streams. In addition, safety messages and reminders were constant throughout the response.

Appropriate resources allocated for the response
Joint Task Force Atlantic and the Canadian Armed Forces were activated early in the recovery stage of the response.

Constant customer touchpoints
As the storm caused outages across the province, Nova Scotia Power maintained communications with customers through social media and its customer care centre team both during the storm and in the days and weeks that followed. An active, responsive community management protocol alleviated significant call volume (and customer frustration) for the customer care team. NSP also shared pertinent information from trusted sources, provincial communications, and police.

Overall, the inter-agency cooperation and emergency response by all levels of government and industry was very well done in Nova Scotia. There was a timely and coordinated response and information was shared in a unified and organized fashion with all responding organizations. The information was accessible to the public online in joint updates, and press conferences were live streamed with all participating response agencies represented. This timely, coordinated, and transparent approach went a long way to build confidence and trust in the response.

Event 2: NL Blizzard

Last week, our team analyzed the social media conversation around #NLBlizzard2020. This week at our crisis breakfast, we dove into the response as well.

In January 2020, Newfoundland and Labrador was hit with a record-breaking blizzard. At its peak, snowfall rates hit more than 10 cm per hour. In total, 93 centimetres of snow fell, making it the most snow in a single day in records dating back to 1942. Impacts varied across the province with the highest wind speed (164 km/h) in Bonavista and snow drifts reaching 15 feet high in St. John’s.

Significant damage was sustained, particularly around coastal communities, such as Bonavista and Conception Bay South, which saw storm surges destroy coastal trails, protective sea walls, and other infrastructure. Now that the province has dug out, damage is anticipated to cost well into the millions of dollars.

What worked

Using social media as a communications tool
Because Newfoundland and Labrador has a strong adoption rate of social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the tools were leveraged by community members and officials to share information and send help wherever it was needed. In addition, the province’s utilities and emergency organizations leveraged their subject matter expertise and put significant energy and resources into keeping people safe.

Essential and emergency services communicating with unified voices and messaging
Once the emergency response plan was activated, essential services including fire, police, healthcare, and the military worked well together to ensure that messaging from the front lines was on the same page. This ensured that those who needed immediate assistance knew where to go and how to get help.

Leveraging the storm to profile the spirit of the province
The stories told out of "snowmageddon" have resonated across the globe, profiling Newfoundlanders and Labradorians for their resilient spirit and great humour in the face of hardship.

In comparing these two weather-related events, there is an opportunity in Newfoundland and Labrador for a more coordinated response and communications in St. John’s and surrounding communities. Nova Scotia’s ability to come together before the storm, coordinate messages, and present each subject matter expert in news conferences to provide updates was a comfort and a convenience for residents. If the many cities, municipalities, and players in Newfoundland and Labrador could have collaborated on press releases or had a central place to share the latest updates, confusion would have been diminished as some State of Emergencies lifted and others stayed in place.

Conclusion

Crises of all kinds cause increased activity, noise, and emotion. The best thing responders can do to be the calm in the storm is to provide clear communications amid a unified operational response. In every crisis, best practice is to complete a process of reflection and learning lessons to implement for next time. No plan or response is perfect, and every opportunity to review, train, or experience response in real life should lead to strengthening our plans for next time.

If you’re not sure where to get started with your crisis communications or emergency management plans, we have an experienced team of crisis professionals who can help you build or audit a plan, provide crisis communications training, provide on-call support, or be there for you as you evaluate post-event.

In many ways, our team can help you weather the storm.

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Written by Matt MacInnis | Jeffrey Ferrier

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