Storm, thaw, and communications breakdown causes flooding chaos in disaster relief
It was the perfect storm in the worst possible way in Montreal this week. Large amounts of freezing rain and ice pellets leading to power outages followed by a spring thaw meant flooding, fires and property damage, all while communication systems were down.
The phone lines at the flood and disaster recovery company Renovco have been ringing non-stop since Wednesday night with customers desperate to dry out basements, put out fires and remove dangerous broken trees.
"Flooded basements, fallen trees on homes, we had a couple of fires as well because people are heating indoors," said Renovco president Walter Assi. "We've been getting all sorts of different types of disasters because of what people are doing to try to cope with what's happening, but the biggest number of calls we've been getting is sump pump failures due to electricity and then their basements are getting flooded."
Electric sump pumps stopped working during the power outage, leaving homeowners with the need for backup systems.
Assi said those that had battery-powered backup pumps were helped for a time, but when those batteries died, the basement flooded. Only those with a diesel or propane-powered generator that could run for half a week would have been able to keep their pumps running, Assi said.
"Not everybody has the infrastructure for three days worth of power outages to be able to cope with it," he said.
He explained that it is not just waterfront properties that are at risk of flooding. Any property with a high water table or poor landscaping without adequate drainage can be at risk of flooding.
The situation went from bad to worse when cell phone and internet lines went down.
"We had a lot of people that could not call out for help because they had no cell phone, no internet," said Assi, who was speaking to CTV News from his brother's home as his office and home were without internet on Saturday afternoon.
Typically, he said, insurance companies contact Renovco through the internet, which then dispatches crews to report to the houses.
Assi said he has never seen anything like this week's storm, including his time working through the ice storm of 1998.
"People could not call out; our insurance companies could not call in," he said. "There was a day when we were really black, we could not even communicate with our people in the field, so they had to come back to base, get new assignments and go out again, which created all kinds of delays and a nightmare-ish scenario really."
He said Renovco could have done much more if the proper logistics were in place to respond to breakdowns in hydro, internet and cell phone towers simultaneously.
He is already looking at backup solutions, such as low-tech walkie-talkies, for the next major crisis, and feels a conversation needs to be had about cracks in the system.
"We're very dependent on technology, and we believe so much in the system," said Assi. "We need to have, maybe on a municipal level, better planning... Better infrastructure for cell phone towers, for sure. That's a big thing for us."
He added that gas stations, pharmacies, and other essential businesses need to have backup power for at least 48 hours to eliminate the backlog that occurred on Thursday and Friday. His staff lost crucial hours on Thursday and Friday getting gas for generators and vehicles, for example, while being unable to communicate with each other.
Assi said Quebec homeowners and landlords need to be better prepared for floods, ice storms and other extreme weather situations.
It's not a question of "if," but "when" the next storm will hit.
"Unfortunately, global warming, and the weather patterns, we're going to have other situations like this, so let's get ready from now for the next one because it will happen," said Assi.