FREDERICTON - A review of a devastating ice storm in northeast New Brunswick says many residents were ill-prepared for an emergency — and some responded to the crisis with fear and suspicion that put them in even greater danger.
The storm in late January loaded trees and power lines with ice, snapping hundreds of power poles and leaving more than 130,000 people without power for days.
Two people died of carbon monoxide poisoning, while another 49 were hospitalized after using generators or barbecues inside homes and garages.
The report said rumours spread during the crisis that generators were being stolen, and people began using them in protected places — resulting in carbon monoxide poisoning.
"Although the precise statistics for the number of thefts that occurred during the two weeks of the ice storm event are not available, the actual number is of little relevance to the primary point: fear of becoming a victim of crime altered the residents' behaviour during the storm's aftermath," it said.
"It is difficult to reconcile the widespread generosity and support that characterized the spirit of the area's residents during the outage period with the random criminal behaviour and resulting fear."
The report also said people were less likely to leave for official shelter, and less inclined to welcome those doing door-to-door visits to check on residents' welfare.
"Given that carbon monoxide monitoring was also being administered during some of the door-to-door checks, the failure to open the door could have had serious consequences," the report said.
Judy Wagner, the clerk of New Brunswick's executive council, was appointed in February to conduct the review and held a series of five public meetings.
The report makes 51 recommendations that range from better co-ordination with municipal governments to improving NB Power's messaging about the anticipated length of power outages.
It notes there are annual campaigns urging people to be prepared for an emergency lasting 72 hours, with reminders ahead of the January storm, but many people took no measures.
"Citizens must take greater responsibility for the preparedness of themselves and their families, and not assume that institutional services (i.e.,government or other relief organizations) will be in place as quickly as desired to maintain their safety and comfort," the report recommends.
NB Power CEO Gaetan Thomas said the utility promotes the 72-hour preparedness message every fall, but more will have to be done to convince people to be ready.
"If a large portion of our customers were able to survive 72 hours, there would be very few people who would need a shelter," Thomas said.
He said it would also allow first responders to more quickly assist people in need of help.
NB Power said the ice storm was the largest, most expensive restoration effort in the utility’s history.
The Crown-owned utility said costs were estimated at $30 million for the storm, which it called "unprecedented."
The report says the Canadian Standards Association requires NB Power to build infrastructure to withstand ice build-up of 12.5 millimetres of ice.
"The most severe design standards require power infrastructure to withstand 19 mm of ice. The ice build-up from this storm exceeded those maximums by four times!" the report says.
The repairs included replacing nearly 600 broken hydro poles and 150 transformers in the Acadian Peninsula, and installing 51 kilometres of new lines.
Thomas said the utility is changing its transmission pole design and will add more anchoring to prevent the cascading effect that toppled poles in large numbers.
He said with the number and severity of major storms along the coast, the changes are becoming a necessity.
"These storms, we're not talking one-off any more, we're talking four in five years," he said.
The report says provincial officials must meet more often and take a more active role both during an event and in planning and follow-up. And municipalities must make emergency planning a higher priority, it says.
The report calls on the province to increase emergency services funding, to increase resources and training.
"Consideration should be given to increasing the NB 911 fee on telephone bills to supplement the NB 911 Service Fund," the report recommends.
Lois Corbett, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, calls the report "a blueprint for action."
She says the report rightly concludes that climate change has and will continue to bring extreme weather.