Two days after a powerful storm swept through southern Ontario and western Quebec, residents in and around Ottawa are still taking stock of damage to their homes and belongings while utilities scramble to restore power for thousands of customers. (MAY 23 / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
As hydro workers scrambled to turn the power back on after Saturday’s devastating storm, experts warned Tuesday that Ontario can expect such extreme weather events more often, and that our infrastructure is not ready to cope with the wind-driven chaos.
As the weekend storm showed, one of the biggest dangers for the province and the GTA is a lack of preparedness for high winds, according to Blair Feltmate, the head of the University of Waterloo’s Intact Center on Climate Adaptation.
“The storm revealed that we have substantial vulnerability, in this case relative to extreme wind, that can down our electricity supply system and put hundreds of thousands of people in a position of a lack of electricity supply for an extended period of time,” said Feltmate.
On Tuesday, Hydro One said more than 150,000 homes were still without power from the storm, which took a 1,100-kilometer path of destruction across Ontario, with wind speeds equivalent to a low-grade tornado, killing 10 people.
Hydro said that crews had restored electricity to more than 479,500 customers. Thousands of power transmission lines were impacted by the storm, with more than 1,400 broken poles, 300 broken cross-arms and nearly 200 damaged transformers.
Toronto Hydro said that as a result of the storm’s high winds, scattered outages across the city affected approximately 110,000 customers. As of Tuesday afternoon, it said the number of customers without power was down to 930.
The city of Toronto said Tuesday it had received more than 2,900 storm service requests over the weekend, and that city and contracted forestry crews were clearing roads and helping Toronto Hydro clear trees from power lines. It estimated that non-emergency cleanup work could take several weeks.
As one of the hardest hit areas, Uxbridge declared a state of emergency on Saturday.
As of Tuesday, half of the town was still without power, said Mayor Dave Barton.
“We have multiple hydro crews, tree removal crews, and we’re trying to get power reconnected,” said Barton. He added that the property damage will take months, and even years in some cases, to rebuild.
In Ottawa, Mayor Jim Watson said “most” customers still without power should have service restored within the next two to three days. But he warned it will be several weeks before the storm damage is fully cleaned up.
Joseph Muglia, director of system operations and grid automation for Hydro Ottawa, said the damage in Ottawa is “catastrophic” with three times as many hydro poles destroyed by the storm, compared to the 80 poles taken out by tornadoes in 2018.
“This level of infrastructure replacement would commonly require about six months to complete,” he said. “We’re performing it within a matter of days.”
The most recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that extreme weather events – including storms, wildfires, floods and extreme heat – are the direct result of a climate that has already changed, and will result in more severe weather.
The report also said that the world can prevent warming of more than 1.5 C if there are massive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
But Feltmate stressed that the city, the province and the country need to start adapting to the warming climate that’s already here, rather than solely focusing on lowering emissions in the long term.
Power outages caused by intense storms could be catastrophic, especially as temperatures rise, said Feltmate, making large glass condo towers in the city even hotter.
“In Toronto and the GTA, we have approximately 500,000 people living in older apartment buildings, 30 years of age and older, eight storeys or higher. Only about one third of those buildings have backup electricity supply in the event of an extended period of an electricity outage, ”Feltmate said.
“Every building should be examined for whether it has backup generation capacity and do they have diesel stores on site to run the generator for an extended period of time – days not just an hour or two.”
Feltmate also said that there has been a lot of analysis done for how prepared Toronto is for flooding, including maps that pinpoint which areas of the city are at most risk of pooling up water.
“This needs to be done for extreme winds,” he said
That lack of data makes it hard to pinpoint vulnerable infrastructure that needs to be adapted to lessen the potential damage.
A 2019 climate vulnerability study done for Hydro Ottawa warned that storms with winds above 120 kilometers an hour posed an extremely high risk for the city’s power grid.
Hydro staff said north-south power lines were “particularly vulnerable” to high winds, and that played out in real time Saturday when many buckled and toppled along multiple arteries in the city, many of which remain closed Tuesday.
Fueled by climate change, storms like Saturday’s are expected to increase in frequency and magnitude, and cities and provinces need to take immediate steps to mitigate the risks, warned Feltmate.
“We have a disaster management system whereby we’re chasing climate change rather than getting ahead of the curve,” said Feltmate. “What we need to do is systematically examine our vulnerabilities and then put in place adaptation and preparedness measures that make it so that we’re less vulnerable to these events when they occur in the future.”
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