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City of Ottawa uses lessons learned during Derecho to prepare for next emergency

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Nearly a year after a devastating storm knocked out power for days, the City of Ottawa is creating guidelines for distributing food and caring for vulnerable residents during the next emergency.

In addition, the city aims to promote neighborhood-level efforts to respond to natural disasters and strengthen residents' self-sufficiency when a storm first occurs.

These were some of the greatest needs identified by RCGT Consulting in its study of the community's response to last spring's derecho storm.

A similar report on a series of tornadoes that struck Ottawa-Gatineau in 2018 focused on improving communications. Hydro Ottawa also released a short document on its derecho response last November.

The thunderstorm that hit Ontario and Ottawa on May 21, 2022, brought wind speeds of up to 190 km/h.

“The system certainly worked because shortly thereafter our officers began receiving a lot of calls from other city services, particularly Ottawa Fire Services and 311,” said Beth Gooding, director of city public safety.

As commander at the head of the table in the Emergency Operations Center, Gooding made operational decisions following the derecho.

Preparing for longer outages

The wind knocked down thousands of trees and cut off power to 180,000 homes and other buildings served by Hydro Ottawa. In the first 24 hours, 2,800 emergency calls were received, three times the usual number.

Some of the outages lasted several days and caused further problems and greater distress.

Councillors on the Emergency and Protective Services Committee on Thursday recalled the extreme pressure the city faced when residents' freezers were without power and food spoiled, and thanked staff, many of whom worked around the clock and also had no power in their own homes.

Due to climate change, the city is more frequently affected by severe weather and needs to make its preparations more efficient, Gooding said.

The City has developed a food safety protocol to determine how to distribute food to those in need in the event of an emergency. The Ottawa Food Bank has volunteered to serve as the initial chair of this task force.

Francis Ferland/CBCFrancis Ferland/CBC

Francis Ferland/CBC

“It’s really a checklist for us to work through when we find ourselves in a chaotic environment,” Gooding said.

Many firefighters, public health workers, and Red Cross and social service workers visited residents in need after the derecho. To ensure this approach is consistent, the city also wants to make sure it knows where people need help.

Expansion of emergency training

Gooding described how the City of Ottawa relies on a core team of staff that can be expanded in an emergency.

“But we also found that this squad is relatively small, and so we have to use the same people over and over again. During a protracted response like the derecho, those people don't have any natural support,” Gooding told councilors. “They haven't been able to take adequate breaks, if any.”

The city is trying to increase the number of municipal employees who can step into command posts and work on the front lines in an emergency.

For Emergency Services Director Kim Ayotte, the most important takeaway from the derecho review is that the City of Ottawa needs to help residents and community organizations that are willing to take action.

“We saw a lot of that during the derecho, we saw how many communities helped each other,” Ayotte said. “We want to take advantage of that.”

Committee chairman Councilman Riley Brockington, whose own community is in the process of sorting out who can provide what kind of help, agreed.

“There is a lot of goodwill and good people out there who have resources that can really help in an emergency,” he said.

The city needs to help with training, Ayotte added, and educate the public on how to prepare for an emergency and whether it's best to call 911 or the 311 and 211 hotlines, depending on the situation.