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Toronto after the Ice Storm: A Personal Report

 The night of the December 21st ice storm in Toronto a tree came down across the road from my house and pulled down the conduit mast on my line without severing it, and loosened the lines on several more houses. This “mast” is the plastic or metal pipe through which the three entwined wires—two carrying 120 volt current and a ground wire—enters individual houses from Toronto Hydro’s street lines.  A fourth, much stronger steel cable secures the line to the house wall with a bracket so that the electricity-bearing wires aren’t carrying any weight.  When the tree across the street came down, the extra weight on my line pulled the bracket out of the wall of my house, snapped the plastic pipe about seven feet from the top and pulled out the flimsy plastic brackets that kept it attached to the wall.

The next day—at 4:30 in the morning, a Toronto Hydro crew severed my line without bothering to notify me, presumably because one part of the line was in the street and constituted a safety hazard. That left me with no power, and, when I woke up and thought it through, I had a sinking feeling that I was going to be well down the Utility’s list of priorities when it came time to restore power to the 300,000 households that were without any.

My situation was inconvenient, but hardly dangerous. My house is a row house, which means I wasn’t losing heat through the outside walls, and the roof is well insulated. My brute of a kitchen stove has 6 23,000 BTU burners, and I discovered that running three of them for 30 minutes every hour or two kept the temperature in the house above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. I also discovered that the recently-replaced gas-fired hot water tank doesn’t require electricity to run, so I could wash dishes and take a shower whenever I needed to.

I also owned a gas electrical generator I’d bought six years ago that was still sitting unopened in its box, and on day three—after I ran out of candles and had run down the batteries on my elderly flashlights, my friend Kevin Walker and I pulled the generator out onto the back deck and got it running. That gave me Internet, restored the refrigerator, and provided a space heater and some lights for 10-12 hours a day. The temperatures in the house dropped down to the mid-50s overnight because I couldn’t figure out a way to run the stove burners in my sleep, so I put another duvet on the bed, and quickly discovered that I slept more soundly than usual. It would be, I calculated, at least another 3-4 days before my electricity would be restored, so why whine?  I’d wait my turn, make do, and not overburden Toronto Hydro’s overwhelmed response mechanisms with my pitiful but pointless wailing.

The truth was, it was sort of fun. I took myself to Canadian Tire and bought two LED headgear lights, an emergency LED lantern that stays lit for 72 hours on four D batteries, and I replaced several big, beautiful but battery-sucking Mag-Lite flashlights with more efficient 300 lumen LED instruments half their size. I also bought a large box of candles, more for their romance value than utility. The gasoline for the generator cost about $20 a day and the generator itself was finicky to operate until I figured it out, but these were solvable practical aspects of a larger public emergency. I’d make do, and meanwhile the government and Toronto Hydro would take care of those who were in real distress—the elderly, those who lived in houses with all-electric infrastructure, and so on. My turn would come when those people were taken care of.

And so slowly—more slowly than I or anyone expected—things began to return to normal in Toronto.

Seven days after the storm—on a Sunday morning—an electrical inspector showed up to inform me that I had to hire a private electrician to repair my conduit mast—something which requires a permit obtainable only through Toronto Hydro, and some specialized couplings and a new, heavier bracket. I asked the inspector why I hadn’t been informed of this by the crew who severed my power. He shrugged, gave me the usual malarkey that he was just following regulations and that Toronto Hydro’s legal responsibility ended at the top of the conduit mast, and that while he sympathized with my situation, there was nothing he could do about it. Toronto Hydro, he hinted, wasn’t going to help. I noted, somewhat crisply, that none of this was my fault. The ill-pruned tree that took down my line was across the street, and was either the responsibility of the City, or the neighbour whose house it was rooted in front of. I also pointed out to the inspector that finding an electrician on a Sunday morning during an electrical emergency wasn’t going to be easy. He referred me to his agency’s website, which he said would offer a list of licensed electricians I could contact. He didn’t think to ask if I had Internet access, and after I spoke still more crisply at him and at the general unfairness of the situation for a few more minutes, he left.

I put in a call to the electrician who’d rewired my house, but he wasn’t answering his phone. I then called four more electricians from the website the inspector directed me to, all of whom told me the same thing: that the materials for repairing the mast were not available, and they’d sold out across the city within 12 hours of the storm. My own electrician, when I got in touch with him late on Sunday afternoon, told me the same thing, estimating that it could be up to 4 days before he could obtain the materials. He spent most of Monday scouring the GTA for materials, and reported back that there were none—anywhere—and worse, that they wouldn’t be reordered until after the New Year, and might not be available until as late as next Friday—12 days from the Sunday morning when I was informed that restoring the mast was a precondition to having my power restored, and 20 days after the ice storm. After that, presumably, Toronto Hydro would come and restore the line: the same day? The next day? When?

He also told me, as the other electricians had, that a temporary fix could be easily done, but that Toronto Hydro wasn’t allowing it. My wiring hadn’t been compromised by the snapped mast, and it was really just a matter of gerrymandering some clamps strong enough to secure the mast back on the wall of my house. What Toronto Hydro should be doing, he said, was issuing 15 day permits, strapping the masts up themselves, and restoring the power. In your case, he said, the temporary repair would take no more than 20 minutes to accomplish. But since they’re not allowing it, I’d just have to wait until he could track down the mandated materials.

None of this made sense to me. I hadn’t done anything wrong, I hadn’t been negligent, and now I was facing 3 weeks without electricity in the middle of very cold winter? That’s when the light bulb went on inside my head.

Toronto Hydro and its spokespersons, from the beginning of the emergency, went out of their way to resist calling the outages to 300,000 households an emergency, echoing Mayor Rob Ford’s stance on the matter. Power was being restored in an orderly and fair sequence, and declaring an emergency, they said—again echoing Ford—wouldn’t speed that up.

Sensible enough, but it’s not quite the whole story. The true reason Toronto Hydro doesn’t want a state of emergency declared is that it would have forced them to repair the snapped masts, or at least issue temporary permits for makeshift repairs to be done by private electrical contractors. Why didn’t they want that? They didn’t want that because there is a small degree of liability involved, and likely some costs, in materials and manpower. They were, in other words, acting like a profit-focused corporation, more interested in avoiding liability and labour and material costs than serving the urgent needs of hydro customers without power.

It’s easy to understand why Rob Ford didn’t want an emergency declared. A declared state of emergency would have made it fall within the jurisdiction of city council and acting mayor Norm Kelly, someone who could have then ordered Toronto Hydro to issue temporary repair permits and otherwise act with some compassion and alacrity to get people’s electricity restored. Ford, meanwhile, would lose the public face time for his re-election campaign, which seems to matter more for him—big surprise—than the interests of Toronto and its citizens.

The trouble was that for individual customers without power for five days, this had become a genuine emergency—because those five days were going to become eight days, and that was going to start stretching to 10 days or longer. Without a declared state of emergency, Toronto Hydro was able to avoid responsibility and keep people in a bureaucratic Catch 22 by refusing to restore their power unless the masts are brought to code—something that simply wasn’t possible because individual homeowners are obligated to do a permanent and to-code fix on their conduit masts but were without the materials available to repair them permanently.

Rob Ford’s behavior, meanwhile, should be no mystery to anyone. He was acting in character, and we all know what that’s already brought down on the city. But Toronto Hydro’s behavior is more interesting, and arguably, more sinister. This is a public utility, owned by the City of Toronto and therefore part of the network of public services the citizens of Toronto own collectively. The utility has recently come under criticism for structuring itself like a private corporation, paying its executives exorbitant salaries with the usual fat pension and bonus schemes—and then payouts when they prove to be incompetent or predatory on the public purse and have to be fired. Now, in what was in reality a serious public emergency,  Toronto Hydro was fumbling the ball by trying to cover its corporate ass, enacting the same predatory behaviors we’ve come to expect from private corporations against consumers, and dealing with its foul-ups with heartless legalistic stone-walling and public relations “initiatives.”

On Day 12 of my personal power outage, after talking to my local council member Adam Vaughan and others, I did a television interview with CP24, one of the local CTV-owned stations, in which I explained my case and asked some fairly leading questions about what was going on with Toronto Hydro. I was originally scheduled to be part of a live hookup with the CEO of Toronto Hydro, Anthony Haines, who made $935,000 last year. But after I did my segment, the CP24 cameraman told me that Mr. Haines “declined to speak with me on air.” When I watched the in-studio interview he did right after my segment there was PR initiative slime all over it. He was dressed in a Day-Glo orange fireman’s jacket that I noticed didn’t have a mark on it, and under it, his workman’s brown button-down shirt still had the creases visible.  It’s probably uncharitable to suggest that he’d changed out of his business suit just before going on camera, but most of the other markers of a media-trained slick were also visible: the slightly avuncular “I’m just an ordinary guy trying to solve a great big problem” tone of voice, the collegial friendliness with the on-air host,  the “it’s been tough but we’ve almost got it licked” message, and the talk about all the lessons they’ve learned without getting within a country mile of specifying what lessons they were.

It was hard to blame him for not wanting to talk to me on air. He wouldn’t have satisfactory answers to the questions I was going to ask him. The first question, of course, was this one: why isn’t this an emergency? Doesn’t he think that the prospect of 3 weeks without electric power for the 500 plus Toronto households who were in my situation constitutes a public emergency?

I had some other interesting questions to ask, too.

1.)         Why, when I called Toronto Hydro’s emergency response line was I referred to their website? Didn’t he understand that when people don’t have power in their homes, there’s a 90 percent chance that they don’t have Internet access, and a slightly lesser chance that they don’t even have functional land lines?

2.)         Why was/is there no “live operator” option anywhere in Toronto Hydro’s telephone response system, and why, if one is lucky enough to have Internet access, does the system crash when you try to input a complaint?  (I tried 5 times, at different points during the emergency.)

3.)         Why weren’t they issuing temporary permits to restore conduit masts so people could get their power restored? Wasn’t he aware that they were running a public utility, not a for-profit business?

He probably wanted to avoid some other, more crisp remarks I might have made. The gift certificate programs initiated by Premier Kathleen Wynne and Acting Mayor Norm Kelly might have been the subject of one of them, mainly because both were “Gee, Thanks” generosities that reminded me of the time an Air Canada plane I was on blew an engine and had to return to Toronto. During the five hour delay while Air Canada tried to find an aircraft that wasn’t going to try to kill us, they handed out $10 meal vouchers to their near-victims as if they weren’t aware that the cost of a coffee and a donut at Pearson pretty much devours a sawbuck. What I’m getting at here is that my costs in this emergency are already near $500 with gasoline and food spoilage costs. Repairing the mast and whatever damages the cold has done to my house will likely put this in the range of $2000 before it’s settled. The people to whom a $25 or even $50 “gift” was meaningful, meanwhile, were almost certainly in need of a hell of a lot more.

And so the emergency is now over, more or less, but it is a long way from settled. Let me list some of the outstanding issues before we forget what they are:

1.)    When the next electrical emergency hits Toronto—and global warming, which has brought two extraordinary weather events down on Toronto in a single year, pretty well guarantees that there will be a “next emergency”—what improvements will Toronto Hydro have made to its response mechanisms?

I can suggest a few improvements. One it to rebuild the communications response system so people can get through it, and so, when it overloads, it doesn’t solve its problems by crashing, and throwing those queued up in it back to square one. Put some money into live operators, too. People who’ve lost power generally don’t have Internet access. And get some better music to play while you have your victims on hold.

A second suggestion is to declare the situation an emergency when it puts ordinary people in real distress, and never mind if it threatens corporate goals or makes the CEO and his senior staff look like bumbling idiots. When you’re part of government, emergencies are defined by the conditions citizens are faced with, not by public relations goals or the career health of the executives in charge.

Here’s a third, this one very specific. Since the next emergency is just as likely to be another ice storm as anything else, and if not, most likely a wind or rain event that will bring down more of the tree canopy damaged by this last storm, initiate a program to ensure that all houses are retrofitted with the stronger anchoring bracket that was mandated as a condition for restoring power this time. Most of the old brackets are held by a single bolt. The stronger ones have 4 bolts anchoring them.  And in the absence of a retrofit program, at least stockpile adequate supplies of the materials you’re forcing customers to use as a condition for having their power restored.

Finally, a direct request to Toronto Hydro’s senior management. Stop behaving like dickhead MBAs and start acting like public servants. You didn’t fool many people this time, and you won’t fool anyone the next time if you don’t do a better and more humane job. People who were in the dark and cold for more than a week are and remain powerless in more ways than one. It is the responsibility of the city and Toronto Hydro to stop protecting themselves, and start taking care of their customers and their constituents.

 

December 31, 2013—January 7, 2014  2800 words

 

 

 

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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