Friday, 24 January 2020

What Should Follow Snowmageddon 2020

Quick question, fellow snow shovellers: if the Feds have on their priority list a tunnel across the Labrador Strait, why not a dome over the City of St. John’s? OK, I get it. Funnies aren’t welcome when you’re tired and you have spent possibly several days without power. Many people face the loss of a week’s pay too, which worsens the financial circumstances of a good many. That said, 80 cm of snow is no laughing matter.

It is a testament to the character of people that they have endured, having used Snowmageddon 2020 as an opportunity to express the best of who they are, make new friendships, and share their neighbourliness and their all-round civility, too. Then, too, we acknowledge those who had to carry on in hospitals and other institutions and on snow ploughs, maintaining essential services and working to get the City back on its feet.

Photo Credit: Sue Bailey (Twitter)
All that said, as a modern community, knowing as we ought to that events like last week’s snowfall may reoccur all too soon, we should ask: is the best response we can give nature’s wrath a shutdown of the City for eight days — schools, the University and other academic institutions, businesses, and virtually every other service integral to modern life?

When St. John’s goes back to work on Saturday, should we just wait for the next snow event and, in common parlance, just see what happens? I hope that we do something more than send the Canadian Military on their way and thank them — and Gander and Corner Brook — for their assistance.

I can think of a few questions to which City Council ought to provide answers, bearing in mind that Mount Pearl, Paradise and Conception Bay South all but cancelled their state of emergency (SOE) after just 4 days, including the storm days on Friday and Saturday. I am well aware that they are newer communities with wider streets and have fewer of the issues found in this City’s Downtown.  But, except for the downtown core, the rest of St. John’s substantially mirrors the organization and infrastructure of the larger municipalities on the Avalon. Must, therefore, the entire City of St. John’s be held shut because the downtown is buried under a blanket of snow? In other words, is clearing the Downtown the sole reason that the rest of the City is not functional? If not, why weren’t the other parts of the City operating?

That Mount Pearl, CBS, Torbay (Jan. 19) and Paradise (Jan. 20) are open for business suggests that a very large part of the City of St. John’s should be in sync with them. We’re not talking Gander or Corner Brook; political jurisdiction aside, those other municipalities are effectively extensions of St. John’s.  We have to assume, therefore, that if St. John’s had been more forward-thinking during the days when the Metropolitan Area Board governed Mount Pearl that it would have been shuttered, too. 

Is the shuttering of the whole City a consequence of “all or nothing” legislation? Does the City of St. John’s Act or some other piece of legislation need to be revisited? Or is the problem as simple as St. John’s having inadequate snow clearing equipment and personnel?

While buried deep this time, the City has never earned a badge of honour clearing the Downtown. That includes the small-but-important business district — largely three streets where life and limb often have to be risked to get to a parking meter. Whether any reallocation of budgets to more equipment and personnel occurs, the downtown requires more attention, anyway.

While this Blog Post could spend more time commiserating with the losses suffered, especially by independent businesses (Snowmageddon will be a rounding error on the balance sheets of the Walmarts and the Costcos) and the many, many workers who have lost wages, the fact is that most everyone — individuals, businesses and government — emerges from this SOE worse off. 

While Mount Pearl and the other municipalities on the Northeast Avalon were faster with their snow clearing, the centre of commerce in this region is St. John’s. If St. John’s doesn’t function, neither does Donovan’s Industrial Park, other industrial parks and businesses. In addition, the closure of Provincial and Federal Government offices suggests that a snow-blanketed St. John’s has a disproportionate impact on provincial GDP in consequence of the number of public servants occupying those offices and in other ways — some evident, some not — on the productivity of the whole province. Some of that lost productivity will not be regained.

In short, an eight-day SOE in the Capital City is not just a City matter; it is a provincial disaster. The City of St. John’s — and the Provincial Government — have a duty to demonstrate that they will not be too self-satisfied when the SOE is lifted.

I suggest, first, that both levels of Government immediately commit to obtaining a review of the snow clearing response in St. John’s during the emergency, by an independent group competent and experienced in such matters. If the deficit is all about a lack of equipment, someone had better do the math on the relative cost of having more on hand. (Please don’t “do a Nalcor” and choose a Consultant who will give you the answer you want and will even let you edit their Report!) Public involvement in the exercise is essential.  

Secondly, review any restrictions on the Mayor and Council, whether legislative or regulatory, insofar as they may limit the “City-wide” effect of any SOE called. The cost to individuals on both a human and financial level, to Governments and the public generally, is too great not to have considered every reasonable option.  

Is it necessary to endure a repeat of Snowmageddon 2020? I need convincing.