December 21, 2014 9:00 am
Updated: December 22, 2014 7:06 pm

One year later: What the ice storm of 2013 taught us

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Watch the video above: Global News weather specialist Nicole Mortillaro speaks with Toronto Hydro President and CEO Anthony Haines about the response to the ice storm and what we’ve learned since.

TORONTO – One year ago, in the early morning hours of Dec. 22, the sounds echoing across the Greater Toronto Area were cracking ice, falling branches and explosions of transformers.

READ MORE: Toronto asks for $64M in aid to cover ice storm costs

Many people were left in the dark as Christmas approached, some even beyond Christmas. It was a holiday to remember, but for all the wrong reasons.

What have we learned since then?

A tree is split down the middle following an ice storm that rolled across eastern Canada in December 2013

Sean O'Shea/Global News

In the Town of Richmond Hill, 1,400 street and park trees were lost, about two per cent of its inventory. In Ajax, 500 trees were lost. The full impact is still not known.

And this taught people a valuable lesson: Take care of your trees.

Tall trees with overhanging branches may not seem like a problem in the summer during good weather, but during a high-wind event or an ice storm — even a mild one — they could pose a problem.

Just ask Toronto Hydro.

A sidewalk in Richmond Hill is covered with downed tree branches following the ice storm on Dec. 22, 2013.

Nicole Mortillaro

More than 300,000 customers were left without power, 20 times a normal outage event, and more than 500 wires were down.

“The ice storm was an extraordinary event. It was a natural weather event, the likes of which we had never seen, particularly with regard to Toronto Hydro, particularly with the amount of damage to the tree canopy,” said Brian Buchan, director of media, communications and municipal stakeholders for Toronto Hydro.

WATCH: A look back at the Ice Storm of 2013

And while it may seem like burying hydro wires is the answer, that’s not necessarily the perfect solution.

“We understand that undergrounding is a good thing to do where possible, but we have to do it respecting the needs of our ratepayers,” said Buchan. “And because it’s so expensive it’s not something we can do for everything immediately.”

In fact, Toronto has 11,200 km of existing underground coverage, compared to 15,000 km of overhead wires.

“It’s not like underground feeds weren’t out either,” he continued. “So it wasn’t all about the overhead. It was about this extreme weather event that hit the system, and truthfully, there wouldn’t be an electricity grid that would have been able to withstand that.”

Toronto does suffer from an aging infrastructure, but it’s something that the company is aiming to rectify. When it’s time to renew a particular area, Buchan said, Hydro carefully considers the canopy and whether or not the area would benefit from burying cables.

“As we are addressing the aging infrastructure, a lot of the technologies that we’re using now are by their nature what we call storm-hardened,” Buchan said. “So they are more resilient to extreme weather events.”

Toronto Hydro has also launched a new website, making it easier for residents to report an outage in their area or stay up-to-date on ongoing power issues.

A Toronto Hydro crew member works to restore power to a house in a Scarborough neighbourhood on Friday, December 27, 2013.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

 

Signs of things to come?

David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada said that lessons learned for people should be to prepare for anything.

Though meteorologists knew that the region was heading into a significant ice storm, they were taken off guard by its duration.

“Nobody would have forecasted it to rain for 43 hours. I mean, that’s like a two year supply of ice rain in two days.”

Kids skate on an ice-covered street in Kingston, Ont., on Saturday, December 21, 2013

Kids skate on an ice-covered street in Kingston, Ont., on Saturday, December 21, 2013

While we are at the whim of Mother Nature, there are things that we can do to prepare. It’s about paying attention to the weather, about having emergency kits on hand, and maybe even a power generator.

“If we don’t learn from it, then I think we will pay again. And I think that everybody has to adapt to it, not just the agencies in government, but individuals and families.”

And climate change may make these events more frequent, Phillips said.

“What a lot of people think is that with climate change that things things won’t be so frequent in the future. Well, when you have temperatures averaging around -8 C where you only get snow, when you warm those temperatures up to the sweet mark, the freezing mark, well, you’re likely going to be in that zone where you see more freezing rain.”

Some climate models show that there could be an increase in frequency of ice storms of up to 20 per cent, Phillips said, though not necessarily as intense.

“It happened,” Phillips said. “And it’s going to happen again.”

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