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Bell executives visit to Southwest Coast post-Hurricane Fiona “incredibly eye-opening”

The Bell team in Port aux Basques last week. Stephen Howe, Chief Technical and Information Officer (7th from right); Mirko Bibic, President and CEO (4th from right); Glen LeBlanc, CFO and Vice Chair Atlantic (2nd from right). – Courtesy of © Bell

By Jaymie White

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

– with files from René J. Roy

SOUTHWEST COAST — While people continue to assess their home damage, corporations are currently assessing damage to their infrastructure in the wake of post-tropical depression Fiona. Bell has crews across Atlantic Canada working to repair and restore services as quickly as possible.

Last week, executives from Bell visited Port aux Basques to speak with employees and government officials to develop a plan. Glen LeBlanc, Chief Financial Officer and Vice-Chair Atlantic Canada, said the reason for their visit is two-fold.

“Fiona has brought us to a little bit of an unexpected Atlantic Canadian tour. We spent Sunday in Prince Edward Island, Monday in Cape Breton, and here we are today (Wednesday, Oct. 5) in Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. The purpose of the visit is to first thank our employees who are literally working around the clock. Many of them are suffering challenges at home because they don’t have power or they’ve lost utilities of one nature or another, but yet here they are, working 16- and 18-hour days trying to restore service,” said LeBlanc. “The second purpose of our visit is an opportunity to meet with government officials, and today we were able to meet with the mayor of Port aux Basques and we were also able to meet with Minister (Andrew) Parsons, who was here on the ground, and ask them what more we can do. How do we help ensure this community is back up and running?”

Unfortunately, a return to normal is not like in the short term.

“Many people have been displaced from their homes and it may take many months for those folks to find permanent residence again, and that will create a lot of family challenges, family stress, and what we ensured is that they have the appropriate contact with our Bell Let’s Talk, our mental health initiative, to see if there’s anything we can do to ensure people are getting the necessary support they need during this incredible trying time,” said LeBlanc. “We also talked a lot about our network and the challenges with some cell coverage, and we have our Chief Technology Officer who is responsible for our networks across Canada, who is with us today, and he’s taking lots of pictures and lots of notes, and we are going to try and address some of the cell coverage.”

LeBlanc said they are aware of ‘dead zones’ in town where their cell service drops off and how that proves frustrating for residents.

“Right by the hospital we were told,” said LeBlanc. “We are taking that away and we hope to get that rectified in short order. It’s been incredibly eye-opening. Our purpose of this visit is, this is the worst storm to hit landfall in Canadian history. The damage to Bell’s infrastructure is the worst we’ve ever seen. About 1,500 poles are down and will require replacement. That’s all of the Atlantic provinces. Fortunately our infrastructure held up quite well in Newfoundland,” said LeBlanc. “The Port aux Basques area doesn’t have the same proliferation of forests and trees that we found in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and that is the worst enemy to a storm for us – large trees falling on our Fibre lines and tearing down lines and poles. So we’re assessing the damage and we are trying to take our learnings and ask ourselves what we would do differently and how we would prepare for what unfortunately feels like the next storm, which is more than likely going to happen.”

Early estimates are that Bell’s network is approaching $30 million in damages, but assessment is still underway.

“We don’t even know what we don’t know yet as many of the sites we’re still trying to get access to – roads are washed out, roads are closed with trees, or there may be dangerous powerlines down, so we have to wait until the power corporations clear those roads before we allow our technicians in, with safety being first priority.”

Restoration of service and the repairs to infrastructure will all be a part of the same repair plan, and LeBlanc said Bell will work with the power corporations to get the poles back, get their wiring back on the poles, and begin splicing and repairing damaged wire.

“Luckily most people here on the island have their power back. Everything with our service starts with power. Your home Internet won’t work without power and our cellular towers need power to operate. We have backup generators, but the hydro is back so that will allow us to assess the areas of damage and what repairs need to be made.”

The necessary repairs are extensive, but Bell did what they could to prepare for Fiona.

“The preparations were virtually the same in each of our regions. We knew the path of the storm, so what we began doing is shipping in portable generators to the area most likely to be hit. We would start in Stephenville and start in St. John’s, and we would start shipping generators and we would start moving resources, people, to the communities so they were closer,” said LeBlanc. “We shipped fuel. In Atlantic Canada alone we shipped 400,000 litres of fuel. The purpose of that fuel would be generator fuel but also to fuel our trucks. Many regions, when the power was out, the local fuel depot or the local service stations were closed, so we had to have a backup supply of fuel. So, move people, move generators, move fuel, and that was our prime area objective. We brought resources in from Ontario and Quebec into the Atlantic region.”

LeBlanc said the appreciation shown by political leaders for Bell employees Bell has been significant.

“There’s about a dozen people who are here with bags under their eyes . They’ve been working so hard and I don’t know what we would do without them. Mayor (Brian) Button and Minister Parsons were so complimentary of our people, and just people in general, of how they’ve all linked arms on the same mission to restore services and find safe housing for everyone.”

Some areas will present challenges, like damaged causeways.

“Working with the power corporations, they are going to have to find a spot, and they will. They are very creative, and they will find a solution.”

Another solution Bell is working toward fixing is getting higher Internet speed to areas that currently have no access.

“It’s true that anywhere in this country that there still remain pockets – particularly in rural Canada – that lack the high speed that urban centres have. I think our governments are doing a better job every year, trying to find subsidy programs to get high speed Internet into the more remote and rural areas, and we look forward to working with the government to do that. I won’t be the first to tell you that we don’t have it right everywhere, but the journey is not over, and we continue to try to pick away at communities every year.”

The amount of work currently completed and what still has to be done is hard to determine exactly.

“The first repair is ensuring that your core network is up and operating. What I mean by that is the backhaul of your wireline infrastructure is up and running, so I can say that is currently fully operational. Nine-one-one (911) is fully operational and has been for the most part through the storm. Our cell towers in Newfoundland are all operating now, albeit some may still have some antenna damage, but they are all up and operating on either backup generator power or back on the power grid,” said LeBlanc. “Now the assessment – and this is the most difficult part where I don’t have percentages – is individual home by home, determining what wire damage they may have. The wire from your home to your pole may have torn off and frankly, many people in Port aux Basques may not even know that yet with the challenges they’re dealing with, so we are still getting calls into our call centres reporting damage. I would say our team feels that calls are dropping substantially, which would say that we’re on the back end of having most people back to restored service. Unfortunately there were so many lost homes in Port aux Basques, and the least of their worries is their connection. They lost their home.”

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