Lessons to be learned from ice storm: report author
The Canadian Press
Published Friday, January 4, 2008 12:19PM EST
MONTREAL - The man who wrote a report on "how to confront the unpredictable" after the crippling ice storm of January 1998 says the event's 10th anniversary might be a good time to revisit emergency planning.
Engineer Roger Nicolet, who headed a commission of inquiry that studied the storm and produced 500 recommendations in a 3,000-page report, says looking at the lessons learned from the natural disaster might prove fruitful today.
"We are better prepared," Nicolet told The Canadian Press. "Maybe not as prepared as committee members at the time advocated, but there have been some improvements at the government level as well as the municipal level.
"We would do better (now), but it's not yet an ideal situation and (the improvements are) untested. There are unknowns, and it might be a good time for the government to conduct a review and explain to the population what the situation is at this point."
The Nicolet commission found that Hydro-Quebec needed to improve its grid and ensure that any subsequent collapse wouldn't be as widespread.
The commission also determined that the government's civil security plan was woefully inadequate to deal with disaster on a local level, with little communication between municipalities and the provincial government in Quebec City.
The inquiry also looked at the private sector and how certain services such as banking and cellphones were unavailable when people needed them. Fuel distribution, Nicolet added, nearly collapsed on the island of Montreal.
For its part, Hydro-Quebec says it's certain it now has a power distribution and transmission system that can withstand another ice storm.
Spokeswoman Flavie Cote said that on the whole, Hydro-Quebec is better placed to face such a disaster today, although it wouldn't be able to prevent electricity from being knocked out.
"A lot of people remember the (collapsed) transmission towers, it was a very strong visual image in 1998," Cote said. "But both systems today are quite stronger today than they were 10 years ago."
The majority of repair work in 1998 was spent replanting and reinforcing wooden poles to make sure a domino-toppling effect wouldn't happen again.
Hydro has also added a new line into Montreal to avoid having to shut down the city.
"What we've done now is added lines and added paths that electricity can take to ensure that all customers, including priority customers, would have power," Cote said.
The commission had also recommended the utility bury its power lines, a considerably more costly option that hasn't become the norm. Cote says an underground system costs between three and 10 times more than an aerial one.
As of 2006, about 26 per cent of hydro lines were underground.
Civil security is also considered to be better organized with more of a local presence in communities.
"On the whole I think the situation has improved," Nicolet said.
"We know that Hydro-Quebec has done some corrective work to its transmission lines as well as its distribution lines.
"And more importantly, the Quebec government and its various agencies and departments are now structured in such a manner they can interact locally in such disaster situations."