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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Dispatch from the state of emergency

An abandoned car sits on the side of the Robert E. Howlett highway in St. John’s Sunday following Friday’s record-breaking storm. Keith Gosse/The Telegram
An abandoned car sits on the side of the Robert E. Howlett Highway in St. John’s Sunday following Friday’s record-breaking storm. — Telegram file photo

Since Friday, over 100 centimetres of snow or so has fallen on parts of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. I know – I feel like I’ve shovelled it.

St. John’s, as I write this, is in its fourth day of a state of emergency. The narrow, tourism-classic downtown streets are plugged tight with snow, the mayor has ordered stores to remain closed and people to stay off the roads.

People who took the state of emergency pretty well at first are starting to chafe; food and fuel are starting to run low and, hove off in small individual corners of the city, it’s next to impossible to grasp just how huge the scale of the problem is.

Among the grumbling?

People complaining about the fact that different municipalities are handling things differently: smaller centres outside St. John’s — generally, newer and with less-concentrated downtown streets — have cleared more snow onto available open ground and have dropped their own states of emergency, with grocery stores and gas stations opening for general use.

There’s a lesson here for all of the Atlantic provinces: get your ducks in a row, because any duck that’s out of line is an immediate target in this world of social media vigilantism.

It’s not really a question of a lack of cohesive regional emergency planning — many regions already have far more of that than any citizen on the street actually knows. If the general public had any idea how much time was actually spent designing emergency plans, they’d be gobsmacked.

It’s three in the morning, and to halt a downtown fire, you need a full-sized excavator immediately to topple a building; chances are, your town or city knows where that piece of equipment is coming from, and has already got a plan in place. And that’s only one tiny piece of an incredibly complex variety of preparations that have to be made — and often, have been made, without anyone outside municipal staff being much the wiser.

We have a lot to learn about emergency measures. Patience is one of the things we have to learn.

The sad thing is, there will have to be more planning, and more regional cohesion, to deal with weather emergencies bearing an ever-larger footprint.

A warming Earth means more moisture in the air, and that moisture’s going to fall — in summer, as intense rain, in winter, as heavier snowfalls. There’s no magic to that; it’s something that has been warned about for years, and the Atlantic provinces have taken note, changing and increasing their IDF (intensity, duration, frequency) precipitation maximums and changing and increasing the size of flood plains. Wind changes, too.

As climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe from Texas Tech University put it succinctly on Twitter, “Newfoundland has experienced a historic snowfall this week. As with any extreme event, it’s not a question of ‘did climate change CAUSE this?’ it’s a question of, ‘by how much did climate change make it WORSE?’ e.g. by increasing moisture in the atmosphere.”

And, “Nine times out of ten, we don’t care about climate change because it’s creating a new problem we’ve never experienced before; we care about it because it’s loading the weather dice against us, increasing many of the risks we already face today.”

Monday was a fine morning in St. John’s, if you liked shovelling the latest heavy, wet snow that came down on Sunday night. It was a damp cold, just above freezing, water dripping from the eaves straight down your neck as you worked your way to the front door.

But the city’s a mess, and a free-for-all of people in vehicles on the extremely narrow roads would delay cleanup for weeks, while also putting lives at risk.

We have a lot to learn about emergency measures. Patience is one of the things we have to learn.

Get used to it.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.


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