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The ice storm is an emergency: Toronto should call it what it is

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The emergency in Toronto is not about the speed at which hydro workers have accomplished their tasks (they are truly heroic), it is the unknown distress of hundreds of thousands of Torontonians whose homes could no longer provide warmth, whose elevators weren’t working, whose kitchens could no longer provide food, whose telephones could no longer connect them to the outside world and whose medical conditions could no longer be managed.

On Sunday, Dec. 22, three days before Christmas, 30 millimetres of freezing rain fell on Toronto. Ice built up on branches and wires in record thickness, and across the city, trees fell like jagged Jenga pieces. They took down thousands of power and telephone wires. One third of Toronto Hydro’s customers were suddenly without power.

In December in Canada, a home that has lost power and heat is habitable for only a short time. By Christmas Eve, with temperatures plummeting to -12 C, many darkened homes were approaching temperatures of 0 C.

Scientific studies have shown us that a stable home is the best way to ensure that a person is able to lead a good life. In Canada, we trust in our infrastructure to maintain the quality of our housing, to provide heat, water, power and even cable as basic necessities. We have no Plan B when one third of Toronto suddenly loses these services.

What should we do under these conditions? Other cities have found out the hard way.

In the summer of 1995, Chicago saw an oppressive heat wave. Large numbers of seniors in highrise apartments without air conditioning died. Morgues were overflowing. The normal death rate was exceeded by more than 700 deaths in the few days of the heat wave.

When researchers later looked at the data, they found that seniors who had had active social lives -- drinking coffee with friends, attending religious services, going to cafes where they were known -- were far less likely to have died. Seniors who were more isolated were significantly more likely to have died. It wasn’t just a force of nature, or even a problem of bad architecture and power brown outs. The difference between people who made it and those who didn’t was their social ties.

Chicago learned from its mistakes. In 1999, they declared an emergency during a similar heat wave, got the media to help and bussed people to cooling centres. City employees and police went door to door to check on people. The result? Only 110 excess deaths, far fewer than in 1995.

What happened to the thousands of Torontonians who weren’t able to book a hotel, go to their in-laws’, eat in restaurants or leave town? How are they doing? We have no idea. We have been told that emergency calls have been five times their normal level, and we hear sirens screaming down our roads constantly.

For days, Toronto has not assigned anyone to find out how people are, to tell them in person that there are warming centres and to offer them transportation to one, or to bring them food and water, to ensure that their oxygen tanks are full, to make sure they have their medications. No one has been assigned to check on their safety — how were they staying warm, did they understand the dangers of hypothermia, of using BBQ devices, gas stoves or generators to stay warm? We have entrusted the safety of tens of thousands to Twitter, to silent radios to websites that won’t stay up because of the demand.

What will we find in a week — in our rooming houses, in our high rises, in the little wartime bungalows that are scattered across our city? Will we have escaped without increased deaths? Or will we regret our lack of action this week?

From Sunday onward, our political leaders debated the worth of declaring an emergency. Perhaps it was the shame we remembered after former Mayor Mel Lastman declared his own "snow emergency" and called in the Armed Forces to remove metres of snow. Perhaps it was Rob Ford’s desire to have a central and positive role in the drama rather than being sidelined after an emergency declaration. Likely, his misunderstanding of the difference between martial law and a state of emergency has prevented such a move. Perhaps it was the city management’s long-standing resistance to provincial interference that made staff reluctant to ask for help.

Sadly, Torontonians have been left out in the cold.

Cathy Crowe is a long-time street nurse and Distinguished Visiting Practitioner at Ryerson. Alison Kemper, PhD, is Assistant Professor, Entrepreneurship and Strategy, Ted Rogers School of Management.

This piece was original published in the Toronto Star, and is republished here with permission.

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