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The Big Chill

Severe cold and winds test residents and town staff

An arctic storm system on Saturday, Feb. 4 saw the town record temperatures of -18, with a wind chill of -35 and wind speeds of 154 km, which combined to freeze pipes and prompted homeowners to request assistance from town staff. – Courtesy of Dubsy Hardy

By Jaymie White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter – with files from René J. Roy

PORT AUX BASQUES — Up until recently, it had been a mild winter on the Southwest coast, but it was inevitable that a bitter storm system would arrive, and it did so on Saturday, Feb. 4. The town recorded temperatures of –18 with the harshest windchill across the province at –35, and it didn’t stop there. Wind speeds were recorded at a peak of 154 km/h, at least 20 km/h higher than anywhere else in the province. This marked the most significant storm to come through the Southwest coast since Fiona, and with the community still rebuilding, the thought of any additional damage was unwelcome. “I would say my phone started around 4 a.m. and calls kept coming after that, people seeking assistance,” said Town Manager Leon MacIsaac four days later on Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 8. “We tried to respond as soon as we could, but there were whiteout conditions, it was extremely cold, and it wasn’t just the matter of going house to house. Staff was getting cold and had to keep going back and getting warmed up before venturing back out again. It did take time and we just cautioned people that we would get to them as soon as we can, but there were calls that came in on Saturday that we couldn’t get to until Sunday because of the severe cold, and even waiting until Monday until it got warm enough, because you can’t expose water lines under –20, -30 degrees. You’d be creating further issues for yourself.” After the first calls came in, it didn’t take long for the Town to mobilize to assist residents. “I’d say the first staff responded around 4:30,” said MacIsaac. “We have people on 12-hour shifts around the clock.” One of the bigger issues reported during the storm was frozen water pipes. “Ballpark, we got 15 or 16 (calls), maybe more. A lot of them may have called the staff directly. We always ask people to please not contact the Public Works staff, even if you know them, call myself, but we are going to have a line set up for future events. You call this line and then the message will be passed on to the staff, because I’m not going to be able to answer my phone on every call and if I’m not answering and you don’t leave a message, we have no idea who you are,” said MacIsaac. “If you have an issue don’t call myself and all members of council as well to speed up the process. There are people who call four individuals with the same issue, but calling other people doesn’t make it happen faster. Our staff can only respond in order of calls.” Currently, the 24-hour emergency line goes to MacIsaac. All issues go directly to him, but this may not be the case for long. The Town is actively setting up an emergency system that individuals can call instead. “We can’t have somebody on call 24/7. When a call comes in, unless it is a real emergency, there’s no need, and I can’t imagine anything happening that can’t wait until morning to respond,” said MacIsaac. “Now if a line blew inside your house, that would result in an emergency, but if you get a water leak outside that could possibly wait until morning, that’s not an emergency. People have to use their own best judgment and, if they can’t, then of course anything after hours we have to charge for our time and services. It’s not great, but we have to recoup our costs because we have to pay overtime for use of equipment and everything as well. So we do charge them, not a huge amount, but we do have to charge for that service when we do respond.” During the storm there were two separate crews on shift to respond to calls. “A couple of basements got flooded and they had to pump them out, and there were other areas where they were thawing lines mostly. Lines were frozen either inside the home or outside. A couple were outside between their home and the water main, just not a lot of ground cover, and at –30 degrees it froze really quickly.” The matter of whom the responsibility falls to depends on where the location of the issue is. “From the curb stop in it’s always the homeowners’ issue to resolve. We’ll respond anyway, but from the curb stop in it is the homeowners’ responsibility,” stated MacIsaac. As the storm rolled through, with the significant cold snap, a notice on the new texting service was absent regarding warming centers and the like, and MacIsaac said there is a reason for that. “We don’t normally open the warming center unless the power is out for an extended period of time,” explained MacIsaac. “Somebody asked that to the office and it had only been an hour, but if they found it really cold, we could make arrangements. But typically we always tell people, and we’ve told them in the past, it’s normally 12 hours before we do a warming center response. Because of the whiteout conditions in this case, it wasn’t safe to even issue a warming center. When it was noted to me, and myself and Nadine discussed it, many people were probably going to refuse to go out in that sort of weather.” MacIsaac urges homeowners to be aware of where their pipes are located. “Everybody should know where their water stop is to, because we know where they’re to, but over time people bury them in sod or pave them over, and the only way you can find them is to use a metal detector and sometimes that isn’t always accurate. There could be nails down or something that could be picked up, but you should always know and have it clearly defined.” Overall, MacIsaac is satisfied with the town’s response. “We were as prepared as we possibly could be. There is no way to prepare for severe weather conditions in any way, shape, or form,” said MacIsaac. “You try to, but there is always something that comes up where you can’t. Because you’ve got a lot of older homes, they’re probably more prone to freezing water lines. There was a couple of structures we went to where the lines were fully froze, but when you get –30 degrees and high winds, you don’t need much more than a pinhole for air access to freeze the pipe. If you’re prone to your pipes freezing frequently, you should really heat trace and put insulation around to prevent future issues. If you’re not doing it, you’re not being proactive.”

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