Extraordinary Storm, Ordinary Measures: The March 2015 Halifax Snowstorm

Stuck sidewalk plow, Halifax, March 2015. Source: Flickr, urbanmkr

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As those in Halifax know, snow is an unavoidable characteristic of the northern city. It falls every year and every so often in such great amounts as to shut down the transportation networks vital to the city’s functioning. On 18 March this year, such a blizzard hit Halifax, adding 50 centimetres to the already high snow banks. As the city ground to a halt and its residents dusted off their snowshoes, the question inevitably arose as to why snow has such potent agency and what city officials should do about it.

Firefighters, police officers, and paramedics transport a patient over heavy snow. Photo credit: Andrew Vaughan, The Canadian Press. See http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/halifax-transit-at-a-standstill-after-storm-dump-50-cm-of-snow-on-the-city
Firefighters, police officers, and paramedics transport a patient over heavy snow. Photo credit: Andrew Vaughan, The Canadian Press. See http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/halifax-transit-at-a-standstill-after-storm-dump-50-cm-of-snow-on-the-city

Snow was not always such a hindrance. Before the 20th century, snow was actually quite helpful to the city’s transportation networks. As snow fell, people swapped out their carts for sleighs and rode over it. The fields surrounding the cities became open for travel and sleighs could even ride through wooded areas. Snow opened up the countryside to the people of the city, rather than confining them to their homes, as it does today. Travel by sleigh made it easier to transport heavy or fragile goods over long distances, opening up interregional trade routes beneficial to the city economy.

The turning point in this history of snow was the introduction of the car. As cars became affordable and widespread in the 1920s, people were increasingly able and willing to travel greater distances from home to work. The once highly dense city began a process of urban sprawl. The farther the city sprawled, the more dependent it became on the car to connect the population to employment, goods, and services. Anything that hindered the functioning of the car hindered the functioning of the city itself. The blizzard gained its agency to shut down the city by inhibiting the car’s ability to function.

A large snowstorm immobilizes transportation in modern cities, which in turn threatens essential services, in particular health care. Between 4-5 March 1971, over 70 centimetres of snow fell on Montreal. During the bulk of the storm several hospitals stopped taking calls for ambulances more than a two-block radius away, since ambulances were simply not able to make the trip. Halifax experienced similar difficulty this winter. Photos showed firefighters, paramedics, and police officers together,with great difficulty, hauling a patient on a spine board over deep snow. In situations where every second counts, such transportation delays can cause serious problems.

Some sections of the population are especially vulnerable during such a storm. Writing about White Juan, a comparable storm that hit the city in 2004, the city’s website wrote that “the elderly and disabled, and those on social assistance endured the impact of this storm for several weeks, with lack of access to public facilities and health services, food and warm shelters.” The longer it takes for the streets to be cleared, the longer those who do not have the ability to dig themselves out of their own homes, and who are particularly reliant on the city’s infrastructure to deliver essential health services and even food, will suffer.

If a blizzard can shut down such important, even life-and-death networks, how should a city respond? In March, Halifax officials essentially decided the city should just keep its heads down and power through with the help of the existing snow removal infrastructure. The Globe and Mail reported that city mayor Mike Savage decided that declaring a state of emergency was unnecessary. And yet in the same article chief administrative officer Richard Butts stated, “this is an extraordinary winter and it’s going to require extraordinary measures.”

Mayor Savage’s position becomes even more curious when one analyzes past storms of a similar magnitude in other Canadian cities. In the 1971 Montreal snowstorm, the city quickly recognized its inability to operate. The city called on civilians with snowmobiles to drive officials to police stations. The city then coordinated health professionals with police officers on snowmobiles from the Emergency Operations Centre, which had been described by the Montreal Gazette as “like a war room.” While not erasing the effects of the storm, these extraordinary measures were able to mitigate the effects of the transportation breakdown. It was effective in helping to deliver babies, to provide care for individuals who had collapsed from exhaustion or heart attacks, and to save several individuals trapped in vehicles from suffocation and carbon monoxide poisoning. Extraordinary measures were also taken during a 1996 snowstorm in Victoria. On the first day of the storm the city received 80 cm of snow. The transportation networks were quick to collapse and the city’s ability to provide essential health services began to fail. In response, the city brought in 150 reservists from the Canadian army to provide logistical support to other emergency services.

Mel Lastman's snowball fight, 1999.  Photo credit: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/environment/extreme-weather/extreme-weather-general/toronto-calls-in-troops-to-fight-massive-snowstorm.html
Mel Lastman’s snowball fight, 1999. Photo credit: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/environment/extreme-weather/extreme-weather-general/toronto-calls-in-troops-to-fight-massive-snowstorm.html

Of course, there is also a limit to the use of extraordinary measures. After a January 1999 blizzard dumped 40 centimetres of snow on Toronto, mayor Mel Lastman called in the military. This move was ridiculed by the national media and by the city’s own residents as extreme and disproportionate. One motorist interviewed by CBC stated, “I’ve seen worse in Montreal. I can’t believe this city can’t get it together.”

In the context of Halifax’s own history with snowstorms, declaring a state of emergency for the March 2015 blizzard would not have been considered disproportionate. After all, a state of emergency had been declared during the 2004 White Juan, which, according to the Halifax city website, allowed emergency crews opportunity to clean up the streets. And this year’s storm was even worse. Environment Canada meteorologist Linda Libby told the Chronicle Herald, “certainly if we look at how much [snow] we received in the last two storms, we’ve exceeded how much we got for White Juan.” (Other news organizations made similar comparisons. See, for example, the CBC, “Halifax Storms Dump More Snow Than White Juan in 2004.”)

In the face of the transportation shutdown that the snowstorm caused, and the precedent that existed to use extraordinary measures in response, how should we interpret Halifax city officials’ stoicism? In the Herald News, former city manager of streets and roads Phillip Cochrane put the blame squarely on the fact that “the resources are not there.” Snow-removal equipment and personnel have been cut of late to reduce cost, and reduced service was the natural result. It is possible that Halifax officials’ reluctance to declare a state of emergency was also a reluctance to admit that this was an emergency that they had a part in creating.

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Forrest Picher

Forrest's research centres around Canadian environmental history. His main focuses are Canadian snow history, and the history of flood vulnerability in northern Indigenous communities and how that relates to structural violence.

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