L to R: Ahsan Habib, Andrew Easton, Erica Fleck, Bob Robichaud. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

This Saturday, Sept 29, marks 15 years since Hurricane Juan ripped through Halifax in the middle of the night toppling trees, smashing boats and knocking out power for many days and even weeks in some neighbourhoods. Wind speeds of up to 178km an hour were recorded at McNabs Island in Halifax Harbour and the storm surge hit 2.9 meters at Prospect where the Category 2 hurricane made landfall.

What have we learned since Juan and how prepared are we to face another disaster?

It’s a worthy question considering Halifax sits on a hurricane path and there are only five exits off the Peninsula should tens of thousands of people need to leave in a hurry.

“We’re not there yet in terms of an evacuation plan,” said Erica Fleck bluntly at a  session called “Sink or Swim: Decisions in Emergency Management.” It was hosted by Dalhousie University’s MacEachen Institute for Public Policy yesterday. Fleck took over as HRM’s director of Emergency Management only six months ago after spending 30 years with the Canadian military responding to disasters all over the world. She has begun working with communities “one at a time” to plan and identify routes people would take, individuals who will require extra assistance, and locations where they could gather in an emergency.

Ahsan Habib grew up in a coastal region of Bangladesh where flooding was part of life. Since moving here, the associate professor at Dal’s School of Planning continues to observe traffic flow and work on developing predictive tools and transportation models. “We don’t want a situation like Hurricane Harvey or Katrina (where mistakes during evacuations actually resulted in deaths),” Habib told the student audience. “I want to learn beforehand how we can manage a mass evacuation.”

Habib’s modelling in the event of another hurricane with the same windspeed and storm surge as Juan predicts nearly half the Bedford Highway and all of the Armdale Rotary would be impassable because of flooding. For tens of thousands of people living on the Halifax Peninsula, that leaves two bridges and Highway 102 as the remaining exits. If there is no flooding, Habib’s model forecasts it would take 11 hours to evacuate the Peninsula. That rises to 13 hours with a storm surge of 2.9 meters and a longer wait of 15 hours if the storm surge hits 3.9 meters.

A storm surge of 3.9 meters is not unrealistic. It is what forecaster Bob Robichaud, the region’s Warning Preparedness Meteorologist, sees as a “worst case scenario.” When Hurricane Sandy hit the coast of New York in 2012 it generated an enormous surge of 4.0 meters.

“If we get a storm like Sandy,” said Robichaud, “that would supersede what we saw with Juan.” Robichaud said damage from Juan would have been even worse had the tide not arrived two hours prior to the storm.

Habib’s transportation modelling suggests up to 83 per cent of people on the peninsula could be evacuated. It also predicts “gridlock” four hours after any type of disaster arrives.

“We need to figure out buses, signage, muster points, and lane closures,” said Habib. “The demarcation zones for a staged evacuation.” The planner works closely with professor Kevin Quigley, who specializes in risk and emergency management at Dal’s School of Public Administration.

“A thoughtful process is required to determine actions in the face of an emergency,” said Quigley. “Since 9/11, the field of emergency management has grown dramatically for police, fire, and ambulance but there has been no study of the ethical dilemmas that emergencies create. Who has authority? Will people do what they are told? How will services be co-ordinated?”

Weather forecaster Bob Robichaud says in the 15 years since Juan, he has seen big improvements in co-ordination. Back then, Environment Canada had only “wind warnings” and no special weather statements for hurricanes. There was no structured process for contacting the media on weekends when most radio stations are on auto-pilot. (Hurricane Juan arrived on a Sunday night after a beautiful weekend.)

Today, Robichaud says co-operation among emergency managers is high. His office is “embedded” in the province’s EMO digs, which share space in the same building as HRM’s Erica Fleck. Last but not least, Robichaud claims improvements in forecasting have reduced the error rate by 46 per cent in determining the track of a storm at the crucial 72-hour mark when decisions and preparations must be made.

None of which absolves Haligonians of the need to take responsibility for their own “personal preparedness” says Fleck. Have a “kit” ready to go with some extra medication and the number of your insurance company, she suggests. Recent events like last weekend’s tornados in Ottawa, wildfires in B.C., and flooding in New Brunswick suggest more extreme events and natural disasters may be the “new normal” if climate change continues.

Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. For Halifax, the critical zones are at the 4 m above high tide line. That would be a priority for evacuation. The bigger systemic issue is that HRM planners still issue building permits within that red zone. We are about to see 200 or 300 million sunk into a waterline location for the new art gallery NSCAD campus. That project should be halted immediately and another location well above the 100 year probability storm surge predictions should be found.
    Juan did not require evacuations on the scale we saw in the US. Here in HRM it is not about getting everybody out, but getting everybody up and away from the shoreline.